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NASA chief says Congress must act to get Russian craft

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — There will be no U.S. astronauts living on the International Space Station in three years unless Congress gives NASA permission in the next month to buy Russian spaceships, NASA's chief said Thursday.

The United States is the chief operator of the station and has provided more than $100 billion to build and run it. At least one American astronaut has lived on the orbiting laboratory since October 2000, when it was first inhabited.

In an interview with USA TODAY, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said it is unclear whether Congress will act in time to prevent U.S. crews from abandoning the station in 2011.

Griffin said NASA needs lawmakers' approval to buy the Russian ships by roughly the end of October if it's to send a new crew of astronauts to the station in October 2011. The space shuttle isn't an option because NASA plans to retire it in mid-2010.

NASA is building a spacecraft to replace the shuttle, but it isn't scheduled to carry a new crew to the space station until March 2016. The development of the shuttle's successor could be delayed if Congress, as expected, passes stopgap funding legislation for part of 2009 rather than a formal budget, Griffin said. The members of Congress he has spoken to understand the need, he said, but "I cannot predict an outcome."

Congress will be in session for less than two weeks before adjourning in advance of the fall elections.

Federal law forbids U.S. agencies from making payments to Russia unless Russia proves it's not selling arms to Iran. NASA has a waiver to the law permitting the space agency to buy rides on Russia's Soyuz, a small three-seat space pod.

The waiver expires in late 2011, and it takes Russia three years to build a Soyuz. So Russia must start construction in the next few months to have a Soyuz ready to carry Americans in October 2011, Griffin said.

Russia's occupation of neighboring Georgia in August complicated NASA's situation, Griffin said.

After arriving at the station with a new crew, the Soyuz stays parked there for six months to provide a ride home to Earth in an emergency. The shuttle can linger in space for only a few weeks and therefore can't serve U.S. residents as a rescue vehicle, even if it continues to fly after its 2010 retirement date.

Griffin said the Russians, NASA's main partner on the station, would have no trouble operating the facility if the Americans were to bow out.

"That's not the point," he said. "The point is that this is an international project that has come together through American leadership, and if we're not present, that strikes me as a failure of leadership."

One opponent of allowing NASA to buy more Russian spacecraft is Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., who doesn't want to reward Russia for its invasion of Georgia, Weldon's spokesman Derek Baker said. Griffin responded that NASA and Russia's cooperation on space dates back to the Cold War and has transcended other difficulties.

Baker also said Weldon, whose constituents include many Kennedy Space Center workers, would prefer to keep the shuttle running to take crews to the station and maintain jobs at the space center. Griffin said the next president will have the final say, but this administration is committed to the shuttle's retirement so the agency can fund the next generation of spacecraft.

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