ISS Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev will take a brief flight aboard their Soyuz spacecraft early March 20, 2006.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson pledged Thursday to fast-track efforts to get congressional approval for a waiver NASA needs to get astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttles are retired in 2010.
"We are going to make a full, true-blue push to get (the waiver) passed," the Orlando Democrat said after emerging from a meeting with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
NASA needs the exemption to send crews aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle beyond 2011. Otherwise, the United States has no way of reaching the $100 billion space station until the shuttle's replacement becomes available in 2015 or later.
Griffin declined to comment on his meeting with Nelson or on his meetings with other lawmakers this week to garner support on the issue.
Nelson said he hopes the Senate will approve the waiver by unanimous consent. However, opposition by even one member would doom that effort.
In that case, Nelson said he would send the waiver to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for its approval, which would then send the measure back to the full Senate for a vote.
"We don't like the position that we're in, but we don't have any choice if we want to have access to our own space station during a four- or five-year gap," Nelson said.
NASA is seeking an exemption from a nonproliferation law that forbids the United States buying space-related goods and services from Russia while that nation exports nuclear technology to Iran and other nations considered hostile by the U.S. government.
NASA currently holds a waiver from the ban that expires in 2011, but the agency needs an extension as soon as possible to give Russia enough time to build Soyuz.
Concern over whether lawmakers would grant the waiver comes when U.S.-Russian relations are icy. The recent Russian invasion of neighboring Georgia further soured some opinions.
Not helping is the current congressional schedule - lawmakers expect to recess for the rest of the year within a few weeks so that they can return to campaigning.
"If worse came to worst, we could still do it in January, but we need to get this behind us," Nelson said. "A new president would recognize we have to do it. But how much of a learning curve is there? You have to get a new administration up to snuff."
Nelson said Griffin has learned the State Department supports extending the waiver. National Security Adviser Steve Hadley also would like to see it passed, Nelson said.
Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also supports the effort, according to his spokeswoman.
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