A Soyuz rocket erected into position at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan

Russia to launch space missions from own soil in 2015

Vladimir Putin has told astronauts in orbit that Russia will send up the first manned flights from its own soil in 2018.

Speaking by video link with the International Space Station's crew yesterday from the building site of the Vostochny Cosmodrome, he said the new launch pad will help the once-pioneering space power explore deep space and the Moon.

Putin said the first launch from Vostochny near Russia's Pacific Coast, which was chosen to allow cosmonauts to splash down on water after their mission, will be in 2015 and the first manned flight in 2018.

Russia wants Vostochny, where it hopes to exploit a new generation of rockets carrying heavier payloads, to rival its current launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the lease of which has been in contention since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Putin said the new launch pad will be open to use by the USA and Europe – playing up cooperation on the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 flight, which set off the Cold War space race.

"I very much hope that it will be used not only by our specialists, but by our colleagues from the US, Europe and other countries," he said. "Space is a sphere of activity that allows us to forget about all the difficulties of international relations."

But with the image of a fiery rocket launch as a backdrop, Putin also said he wants the Vostochny Cosmodrome to help Russia catch up with other powers in exploring beyond Earth's orbit.

"We are lagging behind the world in some areas," Putin said on a tour of the site in eastern Siberia near the border with China. "We've developed a noticeable gap from the leading space powers in the technologies of so-called deep space exploration."

Since Nasa retired its shuttles last year, Russian rockets blasting off from the Soviet-built Baikonur launch pad provide astronauts around the world with the only ride to the $100bn research laboratory some 250 miles above Earth.

While Nasa pays a steep fee for the trip, the upkeep and $115m a year lease of the Baikonour Cosmodrome, under a deal that expires in 2050, comes at Russia's expense.

Russia has been absent from deep space for more than 20 years but Putin, whose ambition is to restore Moscow's Soviet-era might, said Russia will spend 1.6 trillion roubles ($52m) on space exploration through 2020.

"It's clear that in the 21st century Russia must preserve its status as a leading space power," he said, estimating the size of the space-launch market will grow to be worth $1.5tr by 2030 from between $300bn and $400bn today.

Russia bungled the 2011 launch of what was meant to be post-Soviet Russia's interplanetary debut – the Phobos-Grunt Mars moon probe – amid a string of costly botched launches.

But it signed a deal last month to join Europe on a Mars sampling mission, one of a number of projects that it hopes will help it claw back its reputation in the sector.

Moscow has also revived a long-dormant quest to explore the moon. The launch of the unmanned probe, the Luna-Globe or Moon Globe, is planned to be the first from Vostochny in 2015.

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