Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday told NASA’s administrator that they are worried about the space agency’s dependency on Russia and fear it could put U.S. astronauts at risk.
As President Obama ratchets up sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his allies, the senators said they fear Russia could stop servicing the International Space Station (ISS) or even abandon U.S. astronauts who are in space.
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin last month commented: "after analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest the U.S. delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline."
“I order for the space stations extension to be viable — we need to be able to get there,” Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator Charles Bolden at Thursday's hearing. “I think it is a very delicate situation.”
“We hope that things work out. If Russia were to cut ties with the U.S., what are our options?” asked Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican.
Bolden said that “the relationship between Roscosmos and NASA is solid,” referring to Russia's space agency, and said he did not want to comment on the wider tensions that have erupted since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.
He said that the U.S. has already paid Russia for rocket launches through 2017 and commercial alternatives will not be available before then without additional funding.
NASA’s Commercial Crew program is working with U.S. firms including Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin to develop a viable U.S. alternative to Russia’s Soyuz rocket, now that the Space Shuttle has been retired.
President Obama’s budget request seeks $848 million for the program.
“With additional funds, we can accelerate their schedule,” Bolden told the spending panel.
Shelby said he was concerned about Russia deciding to leave U.S. astronauts up in the space station.
Bolden said that the three-person Soyuz escape pods require two pilots, so it would be technically difficult for Russian cosmonauts to simply cut and run.
Mikulski criticized NASA for proposing to reduce funding for Maryland’s Goddard space center by $200 million. She argued it would hinder the center’s Hubble and other satellite research programs.
The Senate hearing come a day after the U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an injunction against United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, from buying Russian rockets.
The ruling came in a court case brought by SpaceX which alleges the Air Force awarded the contract uncompetitively to ULA. SpaceX argues the purchases violated sanctions on Russia.
The Senate Appropriations Committee could release its Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, which covers NASA, as soon as this month.
The House bill increases NASA funding by $250 million above the 2014 enacted level, in contrast to the $186 million cut called for by Obama’s budget.