US House of Representatives approves Nasa buying Russian spacecraft

Purchase could allow astronauts to take trips to the international space station once space shuttle is retired

Nasa's top achievement in Congress this year boils down to a single sentence - one line in a huge spending bill that would allow Nasa to circumvent an arms-control law and purchase Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft.

For Nasa administrator Michael Griffin, that might be enough to enable him to retire the space shuttle in 2010 and still get US astronauts to the international space station.

Yesterday, the House approved a $630bn measure to fund the government through next year that includes a sentence allowing Nasa to purchase Soyuz until July 2016.

For weeks, Griffin has told lawmakers that the Soyuz is the only reliable way to send American astronauts to the space station in the gap between the shuttle's retirement and the planned first mission of its replacement, now set for 2015. But he needed a waiver from the law banning high-tech purchases from Russia because of that country's sale of nuclear materials to Iran.

Now it's up to the Senate, where a key panel approved the same waiver on Tuesday. Passage is considered likely because it is attached to the spending bill - "must-pass" legislation before Congress adjourns for the year.

The tipping point may have come earlier this week when presidential candidate Barack Obama sent a letter to Democratic leaders in Congress urging them to OK the waiver.

"At the end of 2011, Nasa will no longer even have the legal authority to continue paying Russia for Soyuz flights, so unless we act immediately, the US will abandon its role in supporting, and benefiting from, missions to this amazing facility, leaving it to our international partners," he wrote.

The House action dealt a sharp blow to Representative Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican who fought against the waiver.

The retiring lawmaker wants Nasa and Congress to extend the shuttle program - and associated jobs at Kennedy Space Centre - rather than rely on the Russians.
"It's a disappointment," said Weldon spokesman Derek Baker. "We're still pushing for an extension to the shuttle. It's the right thing to do for Florida, national security and the space program."

But Weldon has been unable to recruit allies, even in central Florida.

Representative Tom Feeney, also a Republican from Florida, said he "reluctantly" supported the waiver. "However, the use of the Russian Soyuz should be a last, rather than first, option to providing American astronauts access to the international space station," he said.

Feeney said he would introduce legislation today that would pump $11bn more into Nasa so that the agency can continue to fly the shuttle through 2012 and accelerate development of its successor.

But the measure has little chance of moving in the waning days of this Congress.

McClatchy newspapers

The GuardianTramp

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