When the shuttles retire

Our view : NASA needs the means to get its astronauts to the International Space Station without Russia's help, and Maryland has an important stake in achieving that goal

August 24, 2008

The Russian invasion of Georgia complicated what was already a major headache for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: how to get to and from the International Space Station, which was funded mostly by U.S. taxpayer dollars, after NASA's aging fleet of space shuttles retires in 2010. NASA expected Russian rockets to ferry its astronauts between 2010 and 2015, when the shuttle's replacement is due to fly. But a chill in U.S.-Russian relations could throw a monkey wrench into that plan.

When the Bush administration decided to rely on Russia to cover the five-year gap in U.S. capability, relations with the Kremlin were cozier. Those days may be over. Congress will also have a say now because NASA can't piggyback on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft without a waiver from a federal law banning government contracts with nations that give nuclear aid to Iran and North Korea - which Russia has. That could be a tough call for lawmakers upset over the administration's foreign policy and failure to fund a shuttle replacement in time.

NASA says it's worked well with Russia in the past, even during periods of tension. If that continued, the benefits of cooperation could be huge, including the development of new energy sources and technologies to reduce our dependence on oil. But that's also assuming Russia keeps its word, something that recent events in Georgia call into question.

Maryland has a big stake in NASA's future. It's home to the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Space Telescope Institute and the Applied Physics Laboratory. The space program pumps close to $1.9 billion annually into the state's economy and supports nearly 13,000 space-related jobs here.

Congress should approve the waiver NASA needs to keep sending astronauts to the space station as planned, and it ought to be prepared to do more if Russia proves uncooperative. America must remain a leader in space. The U.S. space program is at a crucial juncture, and the country can't afford to let it be held hostage to dust-ups abroad with Russia or to partisan bickering at home.

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