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Will US-Russia tensions extend to space?

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Proposals range from extending the shuttle program beyond 2010 to cutting a deal with China, which is ramping up its own human spaceflight effort. Each option faces big budgetary or political challenges.

Already, Bush administration officials reportedly have suggested that the full range of US-Russian ties need to be reviewed in light of Moscow’s actions in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Those tensions appeared to have risen another notch Wednesday when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski inked a deal under which the US would install antiballistic missiles in northeastern Poland.

For the US, the challenge lies in the way the Bush administration crafted its 2004 vision for space exploration. It called for an end to the shuttle program in 2010 and the launch of a replacement, the Ares I and its Orion capsule, by 2015. NASA is working on the Ares I system, along with other major components of its Constellation program, with that deadline firmly in mind. Constellation aims to return humans to the moon by 2020. But that schedule leaves at least a five-year gap with no homegrown way to send astronauts to the space station.

The US endured a nearly six-year gap in human spaceflight between the Apollo and shuttle programs. But this time around, the US has a destination in orbit that it has paid big money to build and maintain.

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