- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

There was no free ride for the NASA astronaut aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan yesterday and bound for the International Space Station.

Unlike previous missions, the U.S. government footed the bill for NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams’ journey after receiving a waiver from Congress to do so.

The 1998 “balance of contributions” agreement between the United States and Russia called for NASA and Russia to both supply resources to the space station on a no-cash-exchange basis. Russia was to provide the living quarters, most of the life-support functions, and most important — 11 Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA hoped to purchase additional Soyuz seats from Russia, but was stopped by the 2000 Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which prohibited NASA from sending additional money to Russia. With the threat of no means for American astronauts to remain in space, Congress agreed to give NASA a waiver through 2012 to permit it to purchase Soyuz seats.

“I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the negotiations. I expected everything would work out just fine to continue the program,” said Mr. Williams, 48, adding that he instead “focused on my training.”

The Russian government gives its space program a fixed budget and the program is responsible for making up the shortfall through commercial sales. Soyuz seats have been sold to multimillionaire space tourists and to other countries to permit their professional astronauts to fly more often.

Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes is flying with Mr. Williams on one of those Soyuz seats for the mission. A third seat is occupied by Mr. Williams’ partner for his six-month mission, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinagradov.

“We see [purchasing Soyuz seats] as an interim method. Ultimately we expect to able to launch and return U.S. crew members on the Crew Exploration Vehicle,” said NASA manager Kirk Shireman.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle is a six-person cone-shaped spacecraft that NASA hopes to fly by 2012.

Another way Russia plans to earn money during this trip is through an advertising stunt. A golf club and ball have been delivered to the space station and the plan is for Mr. Vinagradov to tee off and whack the golf ball during an upcoming spacewalk for a television commercial.

NASA hopes to resume construction tasks on the space station during Mr. Williams’ stay. The last major component was a piece of the space station’s truss installed in November 2002, two months before the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. The only shuttle flight since that time was a flight to carry supplies last July.

Mr. Williams and his Russian and Brazilian crewmates are scheduled to dock at the space station tonight. Mr. Pontes will return to Earth April 9 with the existing crew while Mr. Williams and Mr. Vinagradov will remain in space until September.

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