With less than a year remaining on a U.S.-Russian agreement ensuring that international space station crews always have a Soyuz rescue vehicle ready to take them home, the White House is poised to seek relief from a 2000 law that effectively bars NASA from buying the Russian hardware.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sent a letter to the U.S. Congress June 28 saying the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush will soon ask that the Iran Nonproliferation Act be amended to permit the U.S. space agency to purchase Soyuz rides and Progress cargo flights from its Russian counterpart.

Rice and Griffin said the proposed amendment “is still being vetted within the administration” and would be sent to Congress “in the very near future.” The letter offers few details , but said the amendment would “seek a balanced approach which maintains U.S. nonproliferation principles and objectives, while also maintaining the U.S.-Russian space partnership.”

NASA has little choice but to maintain that partnership if it wants to continue sending its astronauts to the space station for extended stays. In 2001, with NASA facing $5 billion in cost overruns on the station, the Bush a dministration canceled several planned program elements, including a six-person crew rescue vehicle. While Griffin has decreed that NASA’s planned Crew Exploration Vehicle will be used to ferry astronauts and even cargo to and from the station, that vehicle is not expected to be ready until 2010 at the earliest. The Russian space agency, meanwhile, has made clear that NASA will have to pay to use the Soyuz starting in April 2006, when the last of the vehicles that Russia has provided at no cost to NASA since 2000 is due to return to Earth. Without access to the three-person Soyuz, U.S. astronauts would have no way to make it home from the space station in the event of an emergency.

The Iran Nonproliferation Act, enacted to help curb the flow of weapons technology to Iran, bars NASA from paying Russia for space station-related goods and services so long as the U.S. president remains unable to certify to Congress that Russian aerospace entities have stopped giving aid to Iran.

U.S. worries about Iran have only worsened in the five years since the law was enacted, and policy analysts and congressional sources agree that any effort to amend the law is not without political risks for a White House that has taken a hard line toward the Islamic republic . Indeed, the House Armed Services Committee, in a move widely viewed as a pre-emptive strike, included “Sense of the Congress” language in the report accompanying its defense authorization bill calling the Iran Nonproliferation Act a “critical tool” in preventing the Islamic Republic from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and warns that the act “should not be weakened by creating exceptions … that are intended to serve lesser policy priorities.” While report language does not carry the weight of law, the House missive suggests that any amendment the White House proposes to the Iran Nonproliferation Act could encounter resistance in the House. However, one of the House’s most vocal nonproliferation hawks, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), has signaled his willingness to support changes to the law , saying the United States has little choice if it wants to continue to utilize the space station it has spent billions of dollars building. “We have to move forward and decisions have to be made,” he said during a June 29 NASA hearing before the House Science Committee.

Rohrabacher, one of the architects of the Iran Nonproliferation Act, said it has proven ineffective. “I was very deeply involved in the wording of the Iran Nonproliferation Act and dealing with this particular challenge we face right here. And I will say that it was a worthy effort at the time to make sure that we pressured the Russians not to participate in the developing of a nuclear facility in Iran,” he said. “That strategy has, however, not worked. Clearly it has not worked.”

Rohrabacher said the administrations of Bush and former President Bill Clinton share blame for not following through with “some type of overture to the Russians that would give them an alternative” to selling weapons know-how to Iran.

Griffin, in testimony before the House Science Committee June 28 , said there is no remedy short of amending the act if the United States wants to use the space station when a space shuttle is not there.

Griffin also pointed out that by singling out the space station, the law represents an inconsistency in U.S. nonproliferation policy.

“It is worthy of note that it is, today, possible for the Defense Department, through its contractors, to buy Russian engines for Defense Department purposes,” he said, referring to the Russian-built RD-180 engines that power Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 rockets. “But if we would seek to use one of those engines to support the international space station program, it would not be possible under the act as it exists today.”

The letter from Rice and Griffin was released by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who together with House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) wrote Rice and then-acting NASA Administrator Fred Gregory in March urging the White House to propose an amendment to the Iran act. John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, predicted the amendment will go through sometime this year, but not without some resistance.

“[T]he Bush administration has been consulting with congressional members and staff prior to sending it up. But there will be some resistance from the non-proliferation hawks, so passage is not assured,” Logsdon said. “Congress should be able to deal with this issue before it adjourns this fall. But how additional Soyuz spacecraft will be paid for with an already very tight NASA budget is a difficult issue.”

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...