The ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia, and the strain this has put on relations between the United States and Russia, could have implications for whether or not American astronauts get to travel in space after NASA ends its space shuttle program.
NASA is planning to mothball the aging space shuttle in 2010. The agency is working on a replacement spacecraft, called Orion, which will be able to travel to the international space station and also the moon. That won't be ready until around 2015, however.
NASA was planning to fill that gap in American space travel by sending its astronauts up to the orbiting station on the Russian space agency's Soyuz spacecraft. Now, some members of Congress are worried that NASA isn't going to get the political support the agency needs to do that.
"The challenge we have is that for approximately five years, the plan — which is a very bad plan but is the only plan that NASA and the administration and Congress have approved — is to be dependent on the Russian Soyuz vehicle to get people to and from the international space station," says Tom Feeney, a Republican congressman from Florida, which is home to the shuttle. "And so now, with the political realities with Russia invading Georgia, we have a new wrinkle thrown in."
The wrinkle is that NASA needs Congress to act soon if the agency is going to be able to buy flights to the station after 2011. That's because Russia needs three years of lead time to build new space capsules. And to make a contract with the Russians, NASA needs a special waiver from Congress.
"The waiver is required because under U.S. law, any country that provides weapons or nuclear capabilities to countries like Iran, North Korea and Syria, is prohibited from getting American technology or entering into any contract for American technology," Feeney says. "It would be illegal for NASA, unless [it] had a waiver, to actually contract to use the Soyuz to get to and from the space station."
Feeney says the House of Representatives was in favor of granting NASA a limited waiver, "but that was before the hostilities in Georgia. My guess is that in the Senate, the attitude is going to be much less friendly toward cooperation with the Russians."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who spent nearly a week orbiting the Earth on space shuttle Columbia in 1986, says it wasn't easy to previously get support for the waiver. Now, it's even more difficult.
"With the aggressiveness of Russia in Georgia, I think it's dead on arrival," he says. "This tension with the newly energized and resurgent Russia, being run by a man that fancies himself as the czar of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is now going to cause a very serious problem in our American space program."
But NASA spokesman Michael Braukus doesn't seem so concerned. He notes that NASA and Russia's space agency have a long history of successful cooperation.
"We feel that while it's possible that government-to-government issues could have an impact on our relationship, we haven't really picked up any word or any feedback from the Hill that that's what will happen," Braukus says.
He says they won't know for sure until Congress returns to session.
Even if Congress didn't want to let NASA buy more flights from Russia, there's no easy "Plan B." The government could extend the life of the aging space shuttle. But continuing to fly the shuttle, while also building its replacement, would be very expensive.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), head of the House Committee on Science and Technology, said in a written statement that "the administration's lack of contingency planning and its 'penny-wise, pound foolish' budgeting for NASA have put the nation in the position where we don't really have a good alternative to depending on Russia for the next seven years, unless the nation is prepared to start providing significant additional funding to NASA."
He said Russia had proved to be a reliable partner in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, when NASA had to ground shuttle flights during the investigation. He said that "barring a major rupture in the U.S.-Russian relationship across the board," he did not see why space cooperation could not be maintained.