Gagarin's Legacy Russia Seeks to Restore Space Glory
Part 2: 'One of Modern Russia's Most Ambitious Projects'
Russia's leadership is not only focused on the prestige associated with success in space; it is also seeking to boost the program's fortunes on the ground. Svobodny is a tiny in Russia's far east. It lies 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) from Moscow, but it is only 80 kilometers from the Chinese border. Since the end of the 1990s, 2 million people have moved away from the region. The exodus is comprised mostly of young people who have no opportunities here. To stop the drain of youth and brains, the Kremlim wants to establish a brand new space port here over the course of the next nine years -- the Vostochny Cosmodrome.
The project has been given top priority. "The construction of a new space center ... is one of modern Russia's biggest and most ambitious projects," Putin said last year.
And starting this summer, Soyuz spacecraft will also begin launching from the European Space Agency's space port in Kourou, French Guiana in South America. With its close proximity to the equator, the space port offers massive fuel savings advantages. But the future of Russian space travel will be focused on Vostochny. By 2015 the first un-manned rockets are due to take off, and by 2018 the first manned missions are expected start.
But that is all still a long way off. The sparsely populated region lacks infrastructure and people. To solve this problem, the Kremlin wants to create an entire settlement for up to 25,000 new cosmodrome employees over the next few years.
The project will require an investment of $13.5 billion, but the Kremlin hopes to kill two birds with one stone. Until now, Russia has been using the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the site from which Gagarin began the fateful first manned flight into space. But it costs Russia $115 million a year to rent Baikonur from the former Soviet satellite country. That's why the new cosmodrome is to be located on Russian soil, in a geostrategically important region near the border with China.
The Vostochny space port could be used as a base for launching the new Rus-M rockets developed by the Energiya space company. The rocket is to be powered by RD-180 engines first constructed during the Soviet era, which were slightly modernized in the 1990s and are currently celebrating export success to the United States at around $10 million each. Russia is also planning a new space ship for manned missions. Both components could replace the Soyuz workhorses by the end of the decade.
Mars Mission Fueled by Nuclear Power
Russia also plans to play a leading role in future Mars missions. At the moment six men from Russia, Europe and China are simulating a 520-day flight to Mars and back in an experiment to test how isolation affects people. If a flight to Mars is undertaken one day, Russian researchers want to develop its propulsion. They plan to power the engines with nuclear reactors.
Russia wants to make up lost ground in unmanned space travel as well. Since the crash of the Mars-96 mission 15 years ago, the country hasn't dispatched a probe to another planet. In November, Roskosmos plans to send a research robot to the Mars moon Phobos. Phobos Grunt isn't just intended to land there, but also to return to earth with ground samples. That would make it the first probe to return with samples from such a great distance. The European Space Agency wants to support the bold project logistically with its ground stations. "If the Russian's succeed with their Phobos mission," says Rene Pischel, head of the Moscow ESA, "it would be a phenomenal achievement."
But the Russians will need to sort out technical problems before they can chalk up further successes. Otherwise they will risk embarrassing glitches like the recent trouble with the Soyuz TMA-21 spaceship. The launch of the capsule with two Russians and one American on board had to be postponed due to problems wit the communication system. It was a PR blow, not least because a great name adorned the spaceship: Gagarin.
- Part 1: Russia Seeks to Restore Space Glory
- Part 2: 'One of Modern Russia's Most Ambitious Projects'