The future of ISS commander McArthur clouded by uncertainty

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MOSCOW, October 3 (RIA Novosti) - Russian and U.S. space officials said Monday it was not clear who will bring William McArthur, new International Space Station commander, back to Earth in six months time.

"We are no longer obliged to deliver NASA astronauts to the ISS [for free]," Alexei Krasnov, the Russian space agency's director of manned space flight, said at the Baikonur launching site in Kazakhstan Monday.

"Formally, we are not even supposed to return William McArthur on board a Russian Soyuz in six months."

As long as U.S. shuttles remain grounded in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, Russian Soyuz spacecraft remain the only delivery vehicle for ISS missions. Starting with the 12th expedition led by McArthur, Russia will make all flights to and from the ISS for U.S. astronauts on a commercial basis.

Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian Space Agency, said NASA chief Michael Griffin was raising the issue with the U.S. Congress.

"I am certain that McArthur will land onboard a Soyuz," Perminov told a news conference at Mission Control outside Moscow. "However, his return in a U.S. shuttle remains a possibility."

The funds for returning McArthur, who took his first steps on the ISS Monday morning, will be considered at a meeting between NASA and Russian space officials in Moscow on October 6, Krasnov said.

At the meeting, a joint working group led by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA deputy chief, "will also revise contributions of countries party to the ISS construction project," Perminov said, adding that the painful financial issue would be definitely resolved by the time McArthur's mission comes to an end in six months.

Gerstenmaier said he hoped for a U.S. Congress decision in favor of McArthur's return onboard a Soyuz. He said McArthur would return from the ISS on time.

Perminov added that the delay in the decision was not caused by technical problems. "There are no technical problems with the return. As for political issues, I think NASA is resolving them in a positive manner," he said.

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