September 30, 2005

U.S.-Russia Space Flight Future in Doubt

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) - NASA's top official said Friday that the future of U.S. participation in Russian space flights was in doubt.

Michael Griffin told reporters near the Baikonur cosmodrome that "an acceptable financial agreement" could be reached to resolve Russian demands that the U.S. pay for its participation in future Russian flights.

But Griffin said a U.S. law - the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 penalizing countries that sell unconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran, including Russia - could mean an end to "a continuous American presence on the ISS (International Space Station)."

Since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have served as the workhorses of the joint space projects, shuttling crews and cargo to the space station and serving as the station's lifeline.

The shuttle Discovery visited the station in July, but problems with the foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank have cast doubt on when the shuttles will fly again. The shuttles can carry vastly greater loads and crews than the Russian craft.

The U.S. legislation bans payment to Russia in connection with the International Space Station unless U.S. President George W. Bush determines that Russia is taking steps to prevent transfers to Iran of weapons of mass destruction, missile technology and advanced conventional weapons technology.

Russia is building a $800 million nuclear power plant in Iran despite U.S objections that this could help Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons.

On Saturday, a U.S. astronaut is to join a Russian cosmonaut and an American businessman paying for his flight in blasting off for the orbiting station on a Russian Soyuz rocket. The next Soyuz flight is scheduled for April.


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