A political stalemate that threatened to boot the United States off the international space station eased on Thursday after U.S. lawmakers voiced support for an exemption allowing NASA to buy rides from the Russians, agency officials said.
Without authorization to spend tax dollars on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and other space services, NASA could be forced off the space station just as the $100 billion complex is finally finished and ready for full-time science.
The Soyuz capsules are the only available vehicles capable of ferrying people to and from the station aside from the U.S. space shuttles, which are being retired in two years. Soyuz capsules also serve as the space station's lifeboats.
NASA has been operating under an exemption to a trade ban that was imposed to address concerns about weapons proliferation and the transfer of missile technology to Iran. The ban is now known as the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, or INKSNA.
The exemption was set to expire in 2011, but the extension is needed soon because it takes the Russians three years to manufacture the required Soyuz capsules.
Lawmakers reluctantly voiced support for an extension despite troubled relations with Russia, which is in conflict with the neighboring republic of Georgia, a former Soviet state and a current U.S. ally.
On Wednesday night, the House of Representatives tucked the waiver into a funding bill that keeps the government running in lieu of an official spending plan, which remains pending. The measure passed by a vote of 370 to 58. A Senate panel approved a different version of the waiver earlier in the week. The two chambers have to agree on the language and send the measure to the White House for President Bush's signature.
"There's at least one more step before we will be given actual relief [on the trade ban]," space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters on Thursday. "We're right now in the throes of trying to see if we can reach an agreement [with the Russians], but it won't matter if we don't have [the exemption]."
At a gala marking NASA's 50th anniversary Wednesday night, agency chief Mike Griffin noted that permission to spend U.S. tax dollars for Russian rides to the U.S.-built space station "is a victory because all of the other outcomes are worse. That's the situation we find ourselves."
This report includes information from Reuters' Irene Klotz and msnbc.com.