Space Science and Nuclear Proliferation: An Opportunity for Reflection

June 30th, 2005

Posted by: admin

This past Tuesday, the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the future of NASA with its Administrator, Michael Griffin. In its hearing charter, the committee raised several issues that NASA will face in the coming months, and in so doing, voiced concern over the future of the International Space Station (ISS).

To complete construction and use the ISS, NASA needs the cooperation of the Russian space agency. According to the hearing charter, “the US is totally dependent on Russian Soyuz capsules for crew rescue, and without access to Soyuz capsules, Americans will not be able to stay on the space station for long duration missions.” Yet after April 2006, Russia’s obligation to participate expires, and we may no longer have their support. That is, unless we pay for it.

But this is not merely a matter of money. Section 6 of the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) “prohibits the US Government from making payments in connection with ISS to the Russian space agency, organizations or entities under its control, or any other element of the Russian government … unless the President makes a determination that Russia’s policy is to oppose proliferation to Iran, that Russia is demonstrating sustained commitment to seek out and prevent the transfer of WMD and missile systems to Iran, and that neither the Russian space agency nor any entity reporting to it has made such transfers for at least one year prior t such determination.” (From “The INA and ISS: Issues and Options” March 2005 CRS report). The President has almost no chance of making that call.

Thus, we must consider our options:

If we were to continue work on the ISS without the assistance of the Russian space program, we would increase our reliance on the space shuttle. This raises two problems. First, we would be unable to carry out long-term research without Russian assistance because astronauts could only be on the ISS as long as the shuttle is docked. Yet long-term research is the primary purpose of the ISS in Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Second, NASA’s problems with return to flight (reported here) may pose problems for work on the ISS. The New York Times quotes Dr. Howard E. McCurdy of American University on the state of the shuttle: “We are at a crossroads with the shuttle. Do we feel reasonably confident that we understand it enough to go on and fly with the known risks?”

Given the problems associated with this option, many recommend a revision of Section 6 of the INA instead. They suggest that the nonproliferation benefits gained by linking the ISS to Russian proliferation behavior are not worth the costs to the US space program (source: CRS report).

But we should pause briefly before we instinctively proceed down this road. This conflict provides us a rare opportunity in our nation’s science policy to stop and reflect. What are our goals with respect to space research? What are our priorities? Do we need the ISS to achieve them? Perhaps our answers to these questions will leave us in support of the ISS and revision of the INA. If they do, we can confidently support an amendment to the INA. But if they do not, the act of asking the questions will allow us to consider other – perhaps unconsidered – alternatives.

Here, as in any policy situation, if we pause to clarify our goals, we may better ensure that our policies will meet them.

One Response to “Space Science and Nuclear Proliferation: An Opportunity for Reflection”

  1. Eli Rabett Says:

    Bluntly put, without the Russians you can close the ISS. Thinking that the US can go it alone is fantasy. This is completely devoid from the question of whether the ISS has value equal to the investment in it.

    The whole thing gets even worse when you fold in the NASA Exploration Initiative which is a flagship for the Bush Administration.

    OTOH, to think that the US can use ISS as a lever in proliferation dealing with Russia is also a fantasy wrt who needs whom and what is important.