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U.S. Senate Weighs NASA Decision To Restrict Ties With Russia

By Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON — The granddaughter of former President Dwight Eisenhower — the man who founded NASA at the start of the Cold War — on Wednesday warned that NASA was making a “counterproductive and damaging” mistake by restricting ties with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Speaking before a U.S. Senate panel, Susan Eisenhower, a longtime NASA adviser, said the administration erred last week when it cut off most ties with Roscosmos, Russia’s space program, in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a former territory of Ukraine.

“Rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and long-term space agenda,” said Eisenhower, referring to new restrictions on NASA travel to Russia and contact between U.S. and Russian scientists.

The major exception to NASA’s blockade of Roscosmos is the operation of the International Space Station, where two NASA astronauts currently are living alongside three Russian cosmonauts, as well as a sixth astronaut from Japan.

But Eisenhower said even this exception had pitfalls.

“Where does work on ISS begin and where does it end?” she asked in prepared remarks. “This could be of major significance if there is an emergency in space that impacts the community beyond the operational side of the ISS.”

One NASA official who also appeared at the hearing conceded that Eisenhower had a point, but said the level of safety onboard the ISS remained unchanged — at least for now.

“It’s not a concern at this point. We have a very strong relationship with Roscosmos and our partners and doing day-to-day operations in a very effective manner,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations, in an interview.

“But I think we need to be aware of what Susan (Eisenhower) said and make sure that we are continually vigilant.”

Asked whether NASA made the right call in restricting ties, Gerstenmaier — a longtime NASA veteran who frequently works with Russia — declined to elaborate, but he noted that “there are huge advantages to our cooperation in space.”

NASA is in the process of reviewing some of the other partnerships it has with Russia to determine if other exemptions are warranted. Gerstenmaier said Wednesday that NASA will allow its people to participate in a space research conference this August in Moscow.

In her testimony, Eisenhower said that restricting communication between scientists could backfire on the U.S. because the Russian scientific community was among the country’s “most progressive” political sectors and the one that is open to finding common ground.

“We want to make sure that we express our displeasure with Russian behavior and do so in a way that will count with the regime and not punish our friends,” she said.

The only two senators to attend the hearing were both from Florida: Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio.

Rubio said that Eisenhower brought an “interesting perspective” but that he ultimately supported NASA’s restrictions.

“The geopolitical realities of what we’re facing there (in Ukraine) are significant enough that I’m not prepared to criticize the decision that was made,” he said.

Nelson took a different tack.

“I agree with Susan Eisenhower,” he said.

AFP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov

NASA Cuts Off Most Ties With Russia Over Ukraine

By Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON — In a sign that the standoff over Ukraine continues to escalate, NASA on Wednesday moved to suspend nearly every tie it has with its Russian counterpart Roscosmos — with the key exception of communications dealing with the International Space Station.

The move was revealed in an internal memo, dated Wednesday, that called on NASA officials to suspend all contacts with Russian officials, as well as travel to Russia and visits to NASA facilities by Russian scientists.

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted,” noted the memo, which was sent by Michael O’Brien, NASA’s associate administrator for international and interagency relations.

The move marks a sharp turnaround for NASA, where top officials have said for weeks that relations with Roscosmos have been unaffected by the crisis that began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a former Ukrainian territory.

“Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said last month when the agency rolled out its 2015 budget proposal.

He said the agency had not taken steps — at that point — to find an alternate way to get its astronauts to the station.

Since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, the agency has paid Russia to ferry its astronauts to the outpost at cost of about $1.7 billion over five years.

Photo via AFP

U.S. Citrus Industry Feuds With South Korea Over Frozen OJ

By Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON — Florida citrus growers, alarmed about South Korea squeezing their business, are pushing U.S. officials to settle a tariff dispute they say is costing them millions of dollars in sales.

The fight, which began last year, centers on U.S. exports of frozen orange-juice concentrate to South Korea and comes while the industry is struggling with a devastating plant disease called citrus greening.

For years, South Korea had levied a 54 percent tariff on the product, making sales prohibitively expensive and keeping U.S. exports low.

But under a trade agreement that took effect two years ago, the tariff disappeared, leading to an explosion in U.S. business. Exports of frozen orange-juice concentrate to South Korea jumped from $11 million in 2011 to $30 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It was a promising expansion for the $9 billion Florida citrus industry, which grows the majority of oranges used in U.S. juice, including concentrate.

The good times didn’t last long, however.

Last spring, about a year after the free-trade agreement took effect, customs officials in South Korea began to scrutinize the concentrate coming into the country and questioned the source of oranges in the frozen-juice mix.

Under the agreement, only concentrate made exclusively from U.S. oranges is allowed to skirt the tariff, and South Korean officials suspected some of the oranges blended into the concentrate were from another country.

“Oranges that came in from Brazil and then went to Korea wouldn’t qualify,” said Mike Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade group.

One possible reason for the concern, said industry officials, is the link between citrus companies in Brazil and Florida. At least three companies in the state are tied to Brazil, and U.S. industry officials said it’s not uncommon to have juice that’s a blend of oranges from different countries.

Sparks said American citrus companies have provided proof that the concentrate going to South Korea is solely of U.S. origin, but to little avail.

What’s worse, he said, is that South Korea has threatened to retroactively seek tariffs on past sales if customs officials find evidence that foreign oranges were used in the concentrate.

“Obviously, that has scared us to death,” Sparks said.

The tough tactics have made U.S. exporters reluctant to ship concentrate to South Korea. Overseas sales have fallen by millions of dollars since last spring, said Sparks, though neither he nor government officials provided specific figures.

Meanwhile, anxiety is growing over the possibility of a long standoff.

“The sooner we resolve this, the absolute better,” he said.

To do that, the industry has asked U.S. policymakers for help. A spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which negotiates foreign business deals for the administration, said the agency has pressed South Korea for answers.

“We have serious concerns with some of the methods (the Korea Customs Service has) used in this product verification, which appear excessive and (do) not give sufficient weight to some of the evidence of origin the U.S. exporters have submitted,” wrote Anne Eisenhower, of the trade-representative office.

Industry executives said South Korea is balking at accepting government papers they said would validate the concentrate’s U.S. origin, so citrus companies and their allies are looking for other ways to convince them.

To help fast-track the issue, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently sent a letter to South Korean Ambassador Ahn Ho-young that included an invitation for South Korean officials to tour Florida facilities.

“Our industry believes that any outstanding issues can be resolved by on-site examination and documentation, so any remaining questions can be resolved expeditiously,” Rubio wrote.

Officials at the South Korean Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests seeking comment.

The feud with South Korea comes during a tough stretch for Florida’s orange industry. Production is falling because citrus greening has ravaged the state’s groves. A January report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast that U.S. production of orange juice would fall 12 percent, to 550,000 tons, in the 2013-14 season largely because of the disease.

An attorney for Florida Citrus Mutual said U.S. officials must help resolve the trade dispute with South Korea as quickly as possible.

“This new market is extremely important for the growers and processors of Florida,” said attorney Matt McGrath. “Especially under the current circumstances.”

Photo: iKriz via Flickr