WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate has approved amendments to the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA), clearing the way for NASA to pay for Russian launches and spacecraft to support the International Space Station.

The bill was approved late Nov 8 by unanimous consent, meaning it was not subject to a floor vote because no senators objected to its passage. The House passed the same bill Oct. 26.

"NASA appreciates the efforts of Congress to resolve restrictions placed on our partnership with Russia," NASA chief Michael Griffin said in a statement. "Congress' action helps to ensure the continuous presence of U.S. astronauts on the International Space Station."

The Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 bars U.S. purchases of Russian human spaceflight hardware as long as Russia continues to help Iran in its pursuit of nuclear know-how and advanced weapons technology. The Senate approved the House version of the bill, which allows NASA to buy Russian space hardware or services until 2012. The amendment also adds non-space related restrictions on U.S. dealings with Syria to the INA.

"The legislation passed by Congress reflects the U.S. government's continuing commitment to nonproliferation objectives but also recognizes the value of international cooperation in space exploration," Griffin said.

Without relief from the INA, NASA would have found itself unable to send its astronauts to the space station for extended stays. A Soyuz capsule that carried a two-person crew -- and space passenger Gregory Olsen -- to the space station Sept. 30 was the last one Russia was obligated to provide at no charge to the United States under a bilateral agreement.

NASA and the U.S. State Department formally asked Congress in June to amend the INA to permit the United States to make use of Russian space technology in its space exploration plans. The bill now goes to the White House for President George W. Bush's signature.