Even before Nasa finishes its study into the possibility of flying the space shuttle beyond its scheduled retirement in 2010, top agency officials have concluded that extending the life of the orbiter fleet won't solve the problem of keeping the international space station operable for US astronauts.
Instead, Nasa officials have decided that they must convince Congress to allow the agency to buy Russian Soyuz spacecraft to serve as transport vehicles and lifeboats for US space farers and their international partners.
Without the Soyuz, Nasa says in a congressional briefing paper obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, it will have to abandon the station when the current contract with Russia ends in October 2011 and cede control of the $100bn facility to Moscow.
"Continuing to fly the space shuttle past 2010 is not the answer to this situation," the paper says. "The Soyuz option is simply the only sure solution ... or else the US has no choice but to de-crew all US astronauts (and de-facto the Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts) from the international space station in 2011."
The paper is part of a last-ditch effort by the agency to overcome congressional resistance to waiving a law banning high-tech purchases from Russia because of Moscow's nuclear dealings with Iran.
Administrator Mike Griffin has personally visited senior members of Congress this week, pleading for the waiver. Nasa says it needs the waiver this year to give Russia the three-year lead time needed to build more Soyuz after the current US supply runs out.
Despite the dramatic appeal, the waiver is far from certain. Moscow's recent invasion of Georgia has chilled US-Russia relations.
Congressional aides in both parties said the key concern is time.
Congress plans to quite in three weeks to hit the campaign trail, which means Nasa must compete with other priorities, such as energy. And anti-Moscow sentiments run high.
"If any one senator objects, it's going to be hard to get it done in the next three weeks," said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, who said he's planning several legislative manoeuvres to get the waiver passed.
"We don't like the position that we're in, but we don't have any choice if we want to access our own space station," he said.
The Nasa lobbying effort also appears to undermine a newly initiated study of what it would take to keep the shuttle flying past 2010. Last week, Griffin confirmed he expected such a request from the next presidential administration.
Griffin privately had begun to question the wisdom of the 2010 deadline. In a confidential e-mail to his top advisers on August 18, he slammed the White House for what he called a "jihad" to shut down the shuttle and a desire to see the space station languish.
In that e-mail, Griffin also rejected the idea, advanced by some in the administration, that the Russians would be unable to run the space station without the United States. "We need them," he wrote. "They don't need us."
Griffin later said that the e-mail was taken out of context and that he supported the administration policy of retiring the shuttle in 2010 and relying on the Russians to keep US astronauts on the space station.
According to administration officials, Griffin was called to the White House this week to discuss how to press ahead with White House policy and pursue the congressional waiver.