Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, while on the International Space Station, took pictures of the war zone in Georgia, where Russian troops invaded the nation and then only partially pulled back into Russia.
The space station is supposed to be used only for peaceful purposes, not for military uses including space imagery that could be helpful to troops.
Russian ground controllers asked Kononenko to take the pictures. However, Russia says the pictures were for use in providing humanitarian aid to victims in the combat area.
A NASA spokesman noted today that U.S. astronauts have taken pictures of Afghanistan and Iraq that were for peaceful, not military, purposes. Pictures for directing humanitarian aid also have been taken of California wildfires, tsunami areas and more.
NASA is in a delicate position vis a vis Russia. The U.S. space agency in two years will lose its ability to transport astronauts to the space station, from the mandated 2010 retirement of the space shuttle fleet until the first manned flight of the next-generation Orion-Ares U.S. spaceship, a gap that will last half a decade. Therefore, NASA needs to negotiate a contract with the Russians to buy space transportation services on Soyuz vehicles.
But some lawmakers in Congress are enraged that Russia invaded Georgia, and the legislators therefore may refuse to provide an exemption from a national security law to permit NASA to purchase services from Russia, a nation that has supplied materials to Iran. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Aug. 18, 2008.)
The question will be whether congressional anger over Russian invasion of Georgia, and threats Russia has made against a proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense installation in the Czech Republic and Georgia, would mean that Congress would refuse to permit NASA to negotiate a new contract with Russia for flights in 2012 and later.
If so, that could mean no U.S. astronauts could visit the orbiting laboratory, leading to the eventual loss of the space station, an asset in which the United States invested $100 billion of taxpayer funds.