NASA signs contract with Russian counterpart amid shuttle uncertainty

NASA announced on Tuesday it had signed a $335-million contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

The deal allows NASA researchers to travel aboard four Russian Soyuz missions to the ISS in 2013 and two return trips in 2013 and 2014, according to the U.S. space program.

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The previous contract covered fewer missions and expired in 2012, according to reports.

Ultimately, the new, $335-million partnership arrives amid increasing uncertainty about the future of NASA's space flight program.

Initially, NASA had planned this year to retire its three aging space shuttles, including Discovery, with the hope of debuting its new Ares I rocket and Orion capsule in 2015. However, President Barack Obama's 2011 budget proposal would essentially nix the Ares replacement, too, instead shifting space taxiing services to the private sphere.

The president's budget proposal would also shutter the agency's Constellation program, which former President George W. Bush established with the intent on returning NASA astronauts to the Moon and for the first time landing on Mars.

That proposed change, especially, has infuriated some congressional lawmakers, who charge it would leave NASA without a clearly defined goal. However, the White House maintains the cut would assist NASA researchers in developing the technology still needed to embark on both missions -- a argument echoed recently by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Those uncertainties and tensions are sure to be on full display next week, when top NASA researchers and the president gather in Florida to discuss the agency's "next steps." Obama pitched the forum in mid-March, when reaction to his space budget proposal -- which does grant the agency more federal dollars, on the whole -- reached a fever pitch.

"A foundational element of this new strategy is to invest in the development of a targeted set of inter-related technologies and capabilities that can help us travel from the Earth’s cradle to our nearby Solar System neighborhood in a more effective and affordable way, thus laying the foundation to support journeys to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually to Mars," read the announcement for the April 15 event.