Deal keeps U.S. on International Space Station
A political stalemate that threatened to boot the United States off the International Space Station eased on Thursday after U.S. lawmakers passed an exemption allowing NASA to buy rides from the Russians, agency officials said.
Without authorization to spend tax dollars on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and other space services, NASA would have been forced off the space station just as the $100 billion complex is finally finished and ready for full-time science.
The Soyuz capsules are the only available vehicles capable of ferrying people to and from the station aside from the U.S. space shuttles, which are being retired in two years. Soyuz capsules also serve as the space station's lifeboats.
NASA has been operating under an exemption to a trade ban that was imposed to address concerns about weapons proliferation and the transfer of missile technology to Iran.
The exemption was set to expire in 2011, but the extension was needed promptly because it takes the Russians three years to manufacture the Soyuz capsules.
Lawmakers reluctantly cleared the measure despite troubled relations with Russia, which is in conflict with neighboring Georgia, a U.S. ally.
Wednesday night, the House of Representatives tucked the waiver into a funding bill that keeps the government running in lieu of an official spending plan, which remains pending.
The measure passed by a vote of 370 to 58. The Senate had passed a waiver earlier in the week.
"There's a least one more step before we will be given actual relief (on the trade ban)," space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters on Thursday.
"We're right now in the throes of trying to see if we can reach an agreement (with the Russians), but it won't matter if we don't have (the exemption)."