The Economist magazine reports that the US may be forced to abandon the International Space Station in 2006 unless Congress acts to repeal portions of the Iran Nonproliferation Act -
The legislation in question is the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA), which came into force in 2000. The orbiting tin can is the International Space Station (ISS), an American-led (and largely American financed) project which also involves Japan, Canada, Brazil, the EU and, most notably, Russia. To keep people on it requires regular servicing trips. In practice, that means visits from America's space shuttles (grounded at the moment) and Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. But after April next year, an agreement that committed Russia to supply the space-station programme with flights on Soyuz will expire. From then on, America's space agency, NASA, will not be able to pay for any more Soyuz flights because of the INA.
The act prevents NASA from buying such flights until the president certifies that the Russian government is demonstrating a “sustained commitment” to prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction and missile-delivery systems, and also that neither the Russian Space Agency nor any entity reporting to it has made any such transfers in the previous year. So even if the space agency were as clean as a whistle, Russia's government has to be behaving itself. And it isn't, so there is something of an impasse.
The stick to was punish Russia for technology transfers to Iran by withholding the hard cash Russia so desperately needs. Of course, that was before the Columbia crash and the realization that NASA's a sclerotic agency and the shuttle has been obsolete for many years. But this may be a blessing in disguise-
Given poor access to the station, it is also hard to see how NASA could justify spending another $30 billion on completing it by 2010. And if the station were not completed, then the shuttle would not be needed either. Together, they represent about $50 billion of planned expenditure over the next decade.
Allowing the station to die an early death and to mothball the shuttle would free up the cash to fund the next-generation reusable vehicle and get us to the Moon and Mars faster. I wonder if the Bush administration thinks this is the way to go. Maybe we can have Russia and Europe be caretakers of the station until this guy is ready to get his company off the ground -
Even skeptical locals, who've become wary over the years of city slickers with big ideas for their town, perked up when Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos made his pitch - a spaceport for commercial travel into the beyond. Bezos flew into this West Texas town a few weeks ago to tell key leaders how he planned to use his newly acquired 165,000 acres of desolate ranch land.
The future is no longer in NASA's hands anymore.