With the future of the international space station hanging in the balance, NASA is asking Congress for permission to continue buying Soyuz crew-capsule flights
from Russia while at the same time

seeking bids from U.S. firms for delivering cargo to the orbital outpost.


NASA already has $780 million worth of Soyuz
and cargo-only Progress flights
on order from Russia under a deal that expires in 2011. Once NASA’s space shuttle retires around 2010, the three-person Soyuz capsule will be the only means of transporting crews to and from the space station, at least until a planned shuttle replacement vehicle comes on line around 2015. In order for NASA to continue using
Soyuz capsules – which also are used for emergency crew return – during that interim period,
Congress must grant NASA continued relief from a 2000 law barring the purchase of space station-related goods and services from Russia for as long as that country continues to aid Iran’s efforts to acquire missiles and other advanced weaponry.

The White House sent Congress a legislative proposal
April 11
for amending the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non
proliferation Act (INKSA) to permit NASA to continue buying Soyuz flights, but not Progress, from 2012 until the end of the international space station’s operational lifetime.


William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said in an April 16 interview that Progress services were excluded from the administration’s INKSA waiver proposal because the agency is committed to buying its cargo services from the U.S. private sector.


“There’s no eating into the U.S. cargo suppliers’ [market],” Gerstenmaier said. “In fact, we precluded in the INKSA exception purchases of cargo from the Russians. The only thing the INSKA exception asks to do is provide crew transport and some other miscellaneous small integration activities with the Russians.”

Two U.S. firms – Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) – are splitting roughly $500 million in NASA funding to develop and demonstrate rival cargo delivery systems under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services


On April 14, NASA released a formal request for proposals from firms interested in launching cargo to the space station between 2010 and 2015. That competition, which is expected to result in multiple indefinite-delivery,
indefinite-quantity contracts when NASA makes its selections in late November, is open to any U.S. firm, not just Orbital and SpaceX.


Gerstenmaier said it is crucial that the
competition yields a viable service.


“We need this commercial service,” he said. “It’s critical to the future successful operation of the space station and we are committed to commercial. There’s really not an effective backup [available] to NASA. So we are counting on it.”


Gerstenmaier and other NASA officials have said the agency
needs Congress to approve the INKSA exceptions it seeks by late this year so it can enter into negotiations with Russia for additional Soyuz flights beyond 2011.


The INKSA waiver proposal was sent to the NASA oversight as well as the
foreign relations
in both the House and Senate
. Alisha Prather, a spokeswoman for the House Science and Technology Committee, confirmed April 14 that the committee had received the White House’s
proposal and was in the process of reviewing it. Although she declined to release a copy of the proposed bill, she confirmed that the requested exemption does not cover
Progress flights
She also said
the bill would prohibit NASA from buying any more Soyuz flights once either Orion is fully operational or a U.S. commercial alternative has demonstrated its ability to meet NASA’s crew transportation


Meanwhile, NASA awarded an unusual space station-related contract April 16 that could impact the amount of cargo the agency needs delivered. Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International of Windsor Locks, Conn., was awarded a sole-source, fixed-price contract worth up to $65 million for water production services aboard the international space station. Under the terms of the deal, Hamilton Sundstrand will provide equipment that turns the station’s excess carbon dioxide and hydrogen into water using a chemical process known as the Sabatier reaction.


Gerstenmaier said
NASA is buying a service, not hardware – if
the system does not work, NASA will not pay for it.


The water-making
equipment is slated to launch aboard a space shuttle mission planned for late 2009, around the same time the space station is expected to start seeing its first six-person crews. Gerstenmaier said Hamilton Sundstrand’s system has the potential to save NASA from needing to launch 900 to 1,400 kilograms of water to the space station per year.

Comments: bberger@space.com