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The Orlando Sentinel June 29, 2005

White House, NASA seek change in law

By Tamara Lytle

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, forced to weigh the nation's space program against efforts to keep Iran's nuclear ambitions in check, asked Congress on Tuesday for special permission to buy services it will need for the international space station.

Without congressional action, U.S. astronauts would have to vacate the space station next spring except for short visits because current law forbids the purchase of crucial transportation services from Russia, said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

After April 2006, Russia no longer will be required to provide the Soyuz spacecraft that flies astronauts to the space station and serves as an escape vehicle for those living for months at a time on the orbiting laboratory. The Soyuz is part of Russia's commitment as one of the international partners involved in building and working on the station.

NASA wants to buy Soyuz ships, or seats on them, so it can continue leaving astronauts on the station. But current law bars NASA from buying goods or services for the station from Russia because of its cooperation in Iran's quest for nuclear power.

Griffin and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a letter this week to congressional leaders saying they will propose a change to the law that "maintains U.S. non-proliferation principles and objectives, while also maintaining the U.S. Russia space partnership."

The measure could raise controversy because of worries about Iran's nuclear-weapons intentions. Iran's newly elected president has called nuclear technology an "inalienable right" for his country.

"It's going to cause agony in the congressional assessment of the human-spaceflight program," said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University.

"We do not want to be in a position where we are deciding between the importance of the international space station and the importance of limiting nuclear proliferation, especially to a country like Iran," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, a member of the Science Committee where Griffin made his plea Tuesday.

Feeney said Congress might be able to write an exemption to the nonproliferation act that would allow limited purchases of what NASA needs.

NASA originally intended to develop its own escape pod for the space station, as well as a successor to the shuttle. But the escape pod was scrapped, and the shuttle successor is still on the drawing board for the next decade or so. And NASA has not been able to fly the shuttles since the Columbia accident in February 2003, leaving the U.S. dependent on Russia for transportation to the station.

Even when the shuttle program resumes flights, the United States will need the Soyuz because the shuttle docks at the space station only for short periods of time. "It is strategically essential the U.S. have its own access to space," Griffin told the Science Committee on Tuesday.

Lawmakers from both parties have been pressuring the administration to ask for an amendment that releases NASA from complying with the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. House Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., sent the Bush administration a letter earlier this year telling them U.S. participation in the station is at risk without the amendment.

Tuesday, one of the main forces behind the original act, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said changes are needed.

Analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org said the world had changed since the original bill passed. At that time, Russia was thought to be the main source of leaking nuclear technology to Iran. Since then, substantial Pakistani involvement has been uncovered. "If all we had to worry about is what the Russians are doing it would be peachy keen."

Also, Pike said, Republicans in Congress passed the act partly because they disliked President Clinton's policy of engagement with Russia. But now a fellow Republican sits in the White House.

The act has been used as leverage to try to get Russia, which benefits financially from sales to NASA, to stop helping Iran, said Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "We have to use all the leverage we have," he said.

Griffin, in his first appearance before the Science Committee as NASA's new administrator, said the space agency still is on track for a July 13 launch of the first space shuttle since the Columbia accident.

"Based on what I know now, we're ready to go," he said, noting the next two shuttle missions are considered "test flights" because of the risks involved. NASA likely cannot soon solve the problem of repairing damage from debris to the protective tiles during a shuttle flight, Griffin said. But the risk of foam hitting the shuttle and badly damaging it, as happened with Columbia, is negligible and the risks of ice are low enough to be acceptable, he said.


Copyright 2005, Orlando Sentinel Communications