CAPE CANAVERAL - The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to let NASA continue buying Russian spaceships to deliver astronauts and supplies to the space station until 2012.
The Senate already adopted a similar measure, though some minor details need to be worked out before the legislation is finalized.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice asked Congress earlier this year to amend a arms control law that prevented the space agency from buying spaceships from the Russians. The intent of the law was to prevent Russia from providing nuclear technology to Iran.
NASA has relied upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station since the Columbia accident in 2003 grounded the shuttle fleet. Only one shuttle mission has flown in the nearly three years since.
However, Russia's obligation to provide such rides ended with a Soyuz that launched earlier this month. Beginning next year, NASA faced the prospect - barring more normal shuttle flights - of having no way to get its astronauts to the $100 billion international station.
"Without legislative action, NASA will have limited access to the ISS until the U.S. Crew Exploration Vehicle is ready to be deployed," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., during a brief floor debate before the House voted to approve the change.
The new measure, once finalized, would provide the agency the ability to pay the Russian space agency for seats on Soyuz crew ferries or for use of automated cargo carriers.
The measure not only solves the more immediate problem of astronaut access to the station. It also might help ease financial burdens and shuttle scheduling difficulties for the space agency as it tries to transition to a new breed of moon ships and rockets.
NASA has spoken openly about its desire to eliminate as many shuttle flights as possible from the schedule. Nineteen missions are currently planned, including one to Hubble Space Telescope, before the orbiters retire in 2010.
The ability to buy Soyuz means NASA can rely on the shuttles only to haul the biggest and heaviest components that it was built for rather than using it for "logistics" missions to deliver supplies and crews.
The Russian flights are much cheaper and a more efficient use of resources. The Russians have been quoted in foreign press reports as wanting as much ass $65 million for each Soyuz mission, but it's unclear what the ultimately negotiated price will be.
Regardless, it will be many times less than the half-billion to one-billion dollar cost of launching a single shuttle mission.
The flexibility will help the agency in its ongoing studies of how many shuttle flights will be possible between now and 2010.
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