Russia is embarking on its most ambitious space project since the heady days of the space race: planning a new spaceship, launcher and even a new launch site. The plans are remarkably similar to NASA's Orion project and could provide a vital fallback if the US, Russia or other nations run into trouble with space missions.
Until now, Russia (and formerly, the Soviet Union) has simply upgraded its existing space facilities and hardware. Its three-person Soyuz spacecraft, for example, is now in its fifth generation in 40 years. But with top-level Kremlin backing, the Russian space agency Roskosmos is planning to entirely replace its current launch facilities, the rockets used to reach orbit, and the Soyuz itself. Future launches will take place from a new site near the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok.
"Post-Soviet Russia has never had a massive project of this kind," boasted Aleksey Krasnov, head of the agency's human spaceflight programme in a recent press briefing.
Today the agency is set to announce the contractor that will receive 800 million rubles ($24 million) to design the 20-tonne Soyuz replacement by June 2010. The first manned flight is planned for 2018.