Image: Soyuz craft
NASA
A Russian Soyuz crew capsule approaches the international space station for docking in October 2003. Russia is contractually bound to provide free Soyuz rides to NASA until the end of 2005.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 12/2/2004 7:52:50 PM ET 2004-12-03T00:52:50

NASA officials have confirmed Russian reports about an “outer-space swap” worth an estimated $60 million or more. If approved by the U.S. government, the deal could put off a looming crisis over access to the international space station.

By forgiving a debt in crew-hours, NASA officials would buy themselves an extra year of free Russian flights to the space station. That would give negotiators additional breathing room in talks to reconcile the Russian space program’s need for funding, the space station’s need for crew transportation, and the U.S. Congress’ insistence on punishing Russia for helping Iran develop its nuclear program.

RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov wrote about the deal on Wednesday. “Russia incurred a $60 million debt to the United States for help launching the Russian segment of the station into orbit,” he explained. “The debt was to be repaid in man-hours of working time in orbit.”

Crew-hours serve as the currency for research time aboard the space station. Partners in the 16-nation effort "spend" those hours on the projects they want to pursue. Thanks to those NASA contributions in the early stages of the space station program, the Americans currently have a positive balance of about 3,000 crew-hours — a valuable resource.

At the same time, the Russians have a resource that's just as valuable to NASA: the Soyuz crew capsules that are sent to the station twice a year. Those Soyuz ships have become even more essential since last year's Columbia disaster led to the grounding of the space shuttle fleet, and since NASA's plans to develop a new crew-carrying spaceship faltered.

Until the end of 2005, Russia is contractually obligated to give free Soyuz flights to NASA astronauts. After that, NASA would have to pay. That's where the squeeze comes into play: The Iran Nonproliferation Act bars NASA from paying the Russians for space station goods or services, and that prohibition isn't likely to be lifted anytime soon.

For months, negotiators have been meeting to resolve the coming Soyuz crisis.

“The sleepless nights at Amsterdam and Vancouver produced a Solomon-like decision,” Kislyakov wrote, referring to locations where U.S. and Russian space officials have met in recent weeks. In the end, they came up with “a barter arrangement designed to settle both parties' economic claims,” he said.

The art of the space deal
The deal is simple: “Next year, according to the arrangement, the U.S. will write off Russia's man-hour debt in exchange for Russia flying American astronauts in its spacecraft for free for another year,” Kislyakov explained.

One crew-hour on the station is equivalent to about $20,000 in commercial terms. This equivalence was discussed last May when the Russians sought a 500-hour credit for allowing use of their spacesuits. Although NASA refuses to place any dollar value on crew-hours, its current balance of about 3,000 hours is unofficially valued at about $60 million.

In Houston, NASA spokeswoman Kylie Clem confirmed that a deal was in the works but said it was not yet completed.

“We have not made any statements on the addendum to the Balance Agreement yet,” she said in an e-mail to MSNBC.com. “[Russian space agency chief Anatoly] Perminov and [NASA Administrator Sean] O'Keefe approved the text and agreed to follow it, but it is still going through an interagency review here in the U.S. so we are not able to discuss the details.”

An MSNBC.com source on Capitol Hill confirmed the agreement’s status on condition of anonymity. “We're tracking it closely,” he said in an e-mail, “but NASA won't share the draft agreement with the Russians until it's been vetted” by the State Department and the White House.

In a report from Russia's Itar-Tass news service, Andrei Krasnov, the head of human spaceflight for the Russian Space Agency, said last week that the talks did not result in any “signed agreements.”  NASA, he explained, could not make the final decision regarding the purchase of services from Russia. Krasnov said NASA would not even call the meetings “negotiations” but referred to them instead as “technical discussions.”

Perminov, however, expressed a much less nuanced assessment of the negotiations. Formerly the general in charge of Russia’s military Space Force, he took over the civilian space agency earlier this year. In a mid-November interview with a Russian reporter, he said “NASA has completely written off Russia’s debt.”

Roots of the problem
In the four years since astronauts began long-term crew rotations at the space station, Russia has been sending semiannual Soyuz space missions there to serve as emergency bailout capsules for the crew.

At first, short-term crews, often accompanied by European astronauts or millionaire passengers, brought up a new Soyuz and a week later landed in the old Soyuz. Since the Columbia disaster, the Soyuz missions have been devoted to carrying members of the two-man permanent crew, with occasional room for a third passenger.

Back when the space station was first designed, NASA expected to have its own crew rescue vehicle, or CRV, ready to go by 2005. Consequently, it got an agreement from Russia to provide free Soyuz missions through that date. NASA fully expected that after 2005, all American astronauts would use space shuttles for regular transportation and have the U.S.-built rescue capsule available for emergencies. For their part, the Russians would control all the seats for their Soyuz visits.

But the CRV project was canceled three years ago due to cost overruns, and since then NASA has been trying to talk the Russians into providing free flights indefinitely.

Over a space barrel
That idea hasn't gone over well with the cash-strapped Russians. In mid-November, Perminov said he expected the United States to “compensate” Russia for the future privilege of flying aboard Soyuz space vehicles.

“Our position is: if the Americans want to use Soyuz spacecraft they should cover the expenditures,” he told a Novosti reporter.

Perminov said the roots of the problem went back to Congress and the Iran Nonproliferation Act, which was approved in March 2000 to keep Moscow from aiding Tehran's nuclear weapons program.

The act prohibits payments "in cash or in kind" to Russia for goods and services related to the space station unless certain conditions are met. The ban would be lifted if the president declares that the Russian government is working to keep Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles or cruise missiles, and that Russian space officials have not transferred such weapons technology to Iran over the previous year.

Perminov signaled that he would try to get the law's restrictions loosened even if the Soyuz agreement is extended for another year.

“I plan to go to the United States ... and to discuss this with congressmen,” he said. “The nonproliferation law ... automatically blocks a considerable part of our potential cooperation with NASA in manned spaceflights.”

“In that case,” Perminov said, “we will not work on the ISS for free.”

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