The House this week approved a measure that would allow U.S. astronauts to travel to the International Space Station on Russian rockets until 2016. The provision, part of a $630-million spending package, will allow the U.S. to have an orbital presence while NASA develops its next space transportation system.

The Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act prohibits the government from forking over space-related funds to Russia because of the latter's sale of nuclear materials to Iran. But the measure includes a waiver that allows NASA to buy seats on the Soyuz until 2011. The new bill extends the exemption until 2016.

NASA is set to retire its shuttle fleet in 2010, and its Ares moon rocket and Orion crew capsule will not be ready until at least 2015. Until then, Russian spacecraft are the only ticket in town to the space station, making U.S. astronauts on the flights veritable space tourists.

The Senate supports the provision, according to Reuters. The only remaining hitch: to cut a deal for coveted Soyuz seats with Russia given the diplomatic chill over its invasion of Georgia in August.

(Image of International Space Station Alpha/NASA)