House Passes Bill to Allow NASA to Buy Soyuz Spacecraft

CAPE CANAVERAL - The Houseof Representatives voted Wednesday to let NASA continue buying Russianspaceships to deliver astronauts and supplies to the space station until 2012.

The Senate already adopted a similar measure, though some minor details need tobe worked out before the legislation is finalized.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice askedCongress earlier this year to amend a arms control law that prevented the spaceagency from buying spaceships from the Russians. The intent of the law was toprevent Russia from providing nuclear technology to Iran.

NASA has relied upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to and fromthe International Space Station since the Columbia accident in 2003 groundedthe shuttle fleet. Only one shuttle mission has flown in the nearly three yearssince.

However, Russia's obligation to provide such rides ended with a Soyuz thatlaunched earlier this month. Beginning next year, NASA faced the prospect -barring more normal shuttle flights - of having no way to get its astronauts tothe $100 billion international station.

"Without legislative action, NASA will have limited access to the ISSuntil the U.S. Crew Exploration Vehicle is ready to be deployed," saidRep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., during a brief floor debate before the House votedto approve the change.

The new measure, once finalized, would provide the agency the ability to paythe Russian space agency for seats on Soyuz crew ferries or for use ofautomated cargo carriers.

The measure not only solves the more immediate problem of astronaut access tothe station. It also might help ease financial burdens and shuttle schedulingdifficulties for the space agency as it tries to transition to a new breed ofmoon ships and rockets.

NASA has spoken openly about its desire to eliminate as many shuttle flights aspossible from the schedule. Nineteen missions are currently planned, includingone 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 thebiggest 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. TheRussians have been quoted in foreign press reports as wanting as much ass $65million for each Soyuz mission, but it's unclear what the ultimately negotiatedprice will be.

Regardless, it will be many times less than the half-billion to one-billiondollar cost of launching a single shuttle mission.

The flexibility will help the agency in its ongoing studies of how many shuttleflights will be possible between now and 2010.

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