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Obama weighs into Shuttle-v-Soyuz ISS brouhaha

'Pay extra for more shuttle flights or go with Russia'

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US Presidential contender Barack Obama has outlined his views on the near-term direction to be taken by the US space programme, according to reports.

The Democratic senator believes that NASA must be given extra money if it is to extend the operational life of the space shuttle. However he seems to accept that many Democrats on Capitol Hill will be unwilling to find more cash for space, and goes on to say that the shuttle should not keep flying in the absence of extra funds.

This would leave Russia's Soyuz as the only available means of transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and if NASA wanted to put astronauts on the ISS it would need political clearance to buy Soyuz seats for them. This is strongly opposed in some Washington quarters, as the US cash naturally serves to sustain the Russian rocket programme - which like all national rocketry efforts is as much to do with missiles as with space exploration.

This has led many to suggest that the shuttles must keep flying, even if this means that NASA must rob money from its new ships to do so. This would avoid any US dependence on Russia for access to the ISS - a prestige asset which America has sunk huge sums into. US space chief Mike Griffin is known to be afraid that this will happen, effectively paralysing the US space programme's attempts to move forward into the new era of interplanetary exploration.

It seems that Barack Obama is in Griffin's corner, however. Aviation Week reports that the Senator has written to the Democrat leaders of Congress and the Senate, saying that if no more money can be found for NASA then the bitter pill of Soyuz-only flights must be swallowed for a few years.

Obama prefers the big-budget, shuttle extension and new ships all at once option, saying that Democrat politicoes should "be prepared to consider increasing NASA's budget to extend safe shuttle operations beyond 2010 and to accelerate ... efforts to provide human access to low-Earth orbit."

He is firmly against any extension of the Shuttle that delays the upcoming Ares/Orion ships.

"Any effort to extend the shuttle program must receive adequate funding," he writes, "ensuring that progress on developing new vehicles is not further delayed."

If no more cash can be found for NASA, Obama says that the "less than optimal" path of permitting more Soyuz tickets to be bought should be an option, and that the necessary legal waiver should be extended beyond its current cutoff in 2011.

With crucial decisions on the shuttle support base being taken before next year - for instance, the factory which makes new external fuel tanks is supposed to shut down this autumn - Obama is keen to keep options open until Washington can make up its mind. He says that Democratic politicians should "demand" that NASA hold off from any move which would conclusively forbid Shuttle operations past 2010, and that Congress should decide to fund one additional shuttle flight to the ISS right away, in its ongoing decision cycle. ®

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