Senator: Georgia Fighting Could Shut Down U.S. Space Program

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The fighting in Georgia could shut down NASA manned space missions for years, fears a U.S. senator.

Between the years 2010, when the last space shuttle launches, and 2015, when its replacement the Orion crew vehicle is scheduled to make its first flight, American astronauts will be completely dependent on the Russian space program to get to and from the International Space Station.

Such an awkward arrangement is workable as long as Washington and Moscow have good relations.

But the unexpected war that broke out last weekend in the Caucasus has put a definite chill on diplomacy, and any new Cold War that may arise could easily nix joint space efforts between the two countries.

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Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tells he worries that worsening relations could end up with "Russia denying us rides or charging exorbitant amounts for them."

To make things even more complicated, the joint mission arrangement, in which NASA pays its Russian counterpart for seats aboard its Soyuz spacecraft, exists only because Congress waived the Iran-Syria Non-Proliferation Act for NASA.

(The Russian government openly sells nuclear technology to Iran, which means U.S. agencies technically can't buy good and services from it.)

The exemption ends in 2011, and Congress could choose not to extend it.

On Monday, NASA announced that safety concerns had forced it to abandon an accelerated timeline that would have gotten Orion off the ground by 2013.

"We don't want to deny ourselves access to the space station, the very place we have built and paid," Nelson told FloridaToday. "It's going to be a tougher sell now unless there are critical developments during the next 48 to 72 hours."

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