Mars vs. the Mullahs

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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Nothing so tests the ingenuity and will of humankind as the exploration of the unknown. That primordial drive explains, more than scientific or technological progress, the continuing grip of space travel on our imagination. It reminds us that we are, after all, human, specks floating in a limitless expanse that we are nonetheless commanded to seek out and master.

President Bush surely wanted to capture some of that expansive spirit when he announced his so-called Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004, committing America to putting humans back on the moon by 2020 and on Mars sometime after that. His challenge was concrete and Kennedyesque, harking back to an earlier time when Americans could still unite around shared dreams.

Unfortunately for Bush, that long-ago time had a different tax structure that allowed Americans to think big and spend big. Today, thanks to the president and his tax-cutting cronies, our choices are much more constrained. In order to reconcile his Dickensian fiscal principles with his dreams of Mars, Bush has chosen to cut every other government space program to the bone. The latest budgets of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, slash everything from the Hubble space telescope to essential climate-change research. They’ve even cut the basic aeronautic and flight-dynamics work that gives the agency its name.

But budgets aren’t the worst of the president’s problems. In the weeks ahead, Congress and the administration will come face to face with an even more painful dilemma: saving what’s left of the manned space program or keeping up the fight to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The connection between the two is Russia, which is a key partner in the American-led International Space Station — and an important supplier of nuclear technology to the Islamic republic. Under a law passed by Congress in 1999, Russia can’t supply Iran and still work with NASA. But Russia isn’t backing down, and NASA doesn’t have a replacement.

The orbiting station is a basic building block in future space plans. It serves both as a launching platform for eventual deep-space trips and as a laboratory for studying the impact of space travel on the human body.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle capable of bringing crews to and from the space station, since the grounding of the American space shuttle fleet after the February 2003 Columbia disaster. In a move partly intended to keep Russian scientists from drifting into Iranian weapons work, NASA contracted with Russia in the 1990s for a long series of Soyuz flights, up through October 2005.

But Russia remains a key supplier of technology and know-how to Iran’s nuclear program. Under the 1999 Iran Nonproliferation Act, Washington is barred from making payments to any Russian firm — specifically including the Russian space agency — so long as Russia fails to act proactively against Iranian nuclear proliferation.

As things now stand, the October Soyuz flight to the space station will be the last.

NASA plans to bring its shuttles back on line later this year, though it’s not clear whether the safety issues have been resolved. Even if they have, they can’t replace the Soyuz, which does double-duty as the space station’s emergency escape vehicle. The shuttle isn’t capable of docking alongside the station for months as a lifeboat. Two separate NASA lifeboat projects have been dropped by the Bush administration for budgetary reasons. Without Soyuz, astronauts can’t stay in the station for more than a few weeks at a time, a pointless exercise. If something doesn’t give, the $40 billion space station will be abandoned sometime next spring and left to rust.

The impasse is a textbook case study in the clumsiness of foreign policy imposed through congressional threats and sanctions. International relations are not a simple conflict between good and evil, as conventional wisdom has it these days. They are a constantly moving field of shadows, usually framed by bad options and worse ones. Congressional efforts to handcuff the executive branch are as likely to boomerang as to achieve their goal.

As it happens, the Iran nonproliferation legislation, passed by Congress in 1996 and beefed up in 1999, was a major priority of pro-Israel lobbyists. They gave it crucial support and hailed it after passage as a firm show of American resolve to prevent Tehran from building a bomb. But it’s done nothing to slow down the Iranian mullahs’ drive for nuclear acquisition, much less reduce their zeal to use it.

As Jordan’s King Abdullah II reminded us this week in Ori Nir’s Page 1 report, Iran remains the single most serious threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. The question is not whether it must be contained, but how. As we’ve learned again and again in the last four years, only a smart combination of flexibility and toughness can carry the day on today’s fractured global terrain. The Bush administration took an important step last month when it decided to start helping rather than hindering the diplomatic efforts of the European Union to push the mullahs back from the brink.

Now the administration needs to find a way to help Congress climb down from the tree of those mindless 1999 sanctions — without sending a false message to Tehran that the heat is off — so that the space program can be saved before it’s too late. That shouldn’t be rocket science.

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