London, Aug 24 : Russia's clash with the United States over the conflict in Georgia has sparked fears that American astronauts could soon be grounded with no means of getting into space. The US space agency NASA is due to mothball the Shuttle programme in 2010 but the replacement spacecraft is not due to be ready until 2015, leaving a five year gap where the US is dependent on the Russians for a ride to the international space station, The Telegraph reported.
Space campaigners in the US are now concerned that the Russians will pull the plug on the arrangement as the Kremlin flexes its diplomatic muscles, turning the future of space exploration into a diplomatic bargaining chip.
Vincent Sabathier, director of Human Space Exploration Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, wrote last week: "If recent Russian actions are any indicator, a technical excuse to completely block US access to the International Space Station for geopolitical reasons would fit nicely into the Kremlin toolkit."
The deal could also fall victim to stubborn congressmen, who do not want to pay the Russians for the right to hitch a lift because they disapprove of Russian foreign policy.
Congress has to approve any payments to Russia because under American law public funds cannot be sent to a country like Russia that has aided weapons proliferation to state sponsors of terrorism like Iran.
The alternative to hitching a ride with the Russians would be for the US to try to strike a deal with China, which is rapidly expanding its human space flight programme.
Joining forces with the Chinese might be seen as an even greater humiliation that dependence on the Russian space agency.