Despite Waiver, NASA To Stop Using Russian Cargo Vehicle
Unmanned Russian cargo ships like this Progress 28 resupply vehicle, shown leaving the International Space Station ion April 7, 2008, routinely launch fresh food, fuel and other vital supplies to the orbiting lab atop Russian-built Soyuz rockets.
Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA has no intention of paying Russia to help deliver supplies to the international space station (ISS) beyond 2011 despite winning congressional and presidential approval to do so.

"NASA's policy has not changed," NASA spokesman David Steitz said Oct. 2. "NASA will rely on U.S. commercial cargo services to resupply ISS following retirement of the shuttle, and does not intend to purchase Progress cargo services after 2011."

The U.S. space agency's recommitment to the guiding principal of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program came on the heels of U.S. President George W. Bush signing into law a $630 billion temporary spending measure to keep the federal government operating at current spending levels until early March. Among the many pieces of unfinished business Congress addressed in the so-called continuing resolution was extending NASA's existing waiver to a 2000 weapons proliferation law that bars the agency from buying space station-related goods and services from Russia as long as Russian aerospace firms continue to aid Iranian weapons programs.

Had Congress not acted to extend the agency's waiver from having to comply with the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), NASA insists it would not have been able to conclude a new deal with Russia for the three-person Soyuz capsules needed to transport U.S., Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts to the international space station beyond 2011 when the existing waiver would have expired.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin pushed U.S. lawmakers all year to extend the waiver, even going so far as defying the White House Office of Management and Budget by bringing up the issue during budget hearings this past winter.

The White House, however, eventually got behind the waiver and sent Congress a legislative proposal in April that would grant NASA permission to continue buying Soyuz vehicles, but not unmanned Progress flights, through 2016. Progress flights were left out of the equation at NASA's request in order to reassure U.S. launch firms that the agency remained committed to buying ISS resupply flights from proven commercial providers.

The White House proposal, introduced in July as the International Space Station Payment Act of 2008 (S. 3103), stalled in the Senate after Russia invaded neighboring Georgia in August. Shortly after the invasion, the bill's main congressional proponent, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) declared chances of passage all but dead.

A series of last-minute developments, however, combined to help win NASA the Soyuz waiver. The INKSNA issue was given new impetus Sept. 22 when Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, wrote House and Senate leaders urging extension of the waiver. The next day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, normally chaired by Obama's running mate Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, approved S. 3103, clearing the bill for the full Senate's approval.

That particular bill, which would have limited NASA's authority to buy Soyuz vehicles, went no further. Instead a simple extension of the current waiver was included in the continuing resolution, the House of Representatives passed Sept. 24 by a vote of 370-58.

The Senate followed suit Sept. 27, clearing the way for the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance and Continuing Appropriations Act for 2009 (H.R. 2638) to be signed into law by Bush.

While NASA now has the legal authority to put in an order for post-2011 Progress flights when it sits down at the bargaining table with Russia this fall, the outspoken chief executive of one of the companies vying to sell resupply flights to NASA said he is not worried.

"I'm not super concerned about that," said Elon Musk, chief executive and chief technical officer of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies. "I think it's probably a good thing NASA's hands aren't tied there. It's possible we may lose a few flights to the Russians but we are not going to lose more than that. There is no way Congress would tolerate sending millions of dollars to the Russians rather than to a U.S. company and keeping that money domestic."

Musk said he does not see that changing regardless of who is elected U.S. president Nov. 4.

"Neither [U.S. political party] likes sending money overseas if there's a U.S. supplier," Musk said.

In addition to permitting NASA to buy Soyuz and Progress spacecraft through 2016, the newly enacted continuing resolution also keeps most federal agencies funded at their 2008 levels for the first five months of the new budget year, which began Oct. 1.

NASA officials have been bracing for months for having to get by without a budget increase for all or part of 2009.

NASA's 2008 budget was $17.3 billion, some $300 million less than the White House was seeking and $500 million less than Congress appeared likely to approve had it completed separate spending bills rather than resorting to a continuing resolution for the second time since 2006.

Steitz said NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate — the division building Orion and Ares — and institutional spending (what NASA calls Cross-Agency Support) would be hardest hit since the continuing resolution leaves them "funded less than planned" for the first five months of the new budget year. "This requires them to re-plan and defer activities that would have been accomplished under the original plan, which is less efficient, and limits our ability to accelerate Constellation," Steitz said.