updated 2/17/2004 2:51:04 PM ET 2004-02-17T19:51:04

Russian engineers have begun design work on a new spacecraft that would be twice as big and spacious as the existing Soyuz crew capsules, the nation's top space official said Tuesday.

The new craft will be able to carry at least six cosmonauts and have a reusable crew section, Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said at a news conference. Soyuz carries three cosmonauts and isn't reusable.

The spacecraft, designed by Russia's Energia rocket company, will have a takeoff weight of 13 to 15 tons — about twice as much as the Soyuz, which was developed in the late 1960s.

Energia has also proposed developing a new booster rocket based on its Soyuz booster to carry the new spacecraft to orbit.

Koptev wouldn't say how long it could take to build the spacecraft or how much it would cost, but said that Energia had done a lot of work on the new vehicle already.

"It has already reached a serious project stage while the Americans are only talking about their spacecraft," Koptev said, referring to U.S. plans to build a new spacecraft.

NASA plan critiqued
President Bush's plan of returning astronauts to the moon and flying to Mars and beyond envisages phasing out the shuttle in 2010 and building a new spacecraft, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which is set to make its first manned mission no later than 2014. The spaceship development program is known as Project Constellation.

Koptev said that his agency was willing to consider possible participation in the planned U.S. moon and Mars missions, but hadn't yet received any formal proposals from NASA. At the same time, he reaffirmed his skepticism about Bush's space plan, saying that the U.S. administration would have trouble raising resources for the planned missions.

"There is no explanation whatsoever where the money needed to implement the declared program would come from," Koptev said.

He added that more robotic missions to moon and Mars could be useful, but sending humans there seemed too costly and inefficient for now.

"It's necessary to switch from emotions to pragmatic assessment: how much it would cost, where the money would come from and what we would get from such manned missions," Koptev said.

Russians focus on orbital flights
Koptev said that the prospective Russian spacecraft would be intended for orbital flights, not moon missions.

He said that Russia and other partners in the 16-nation international space station were waiting for the United States to clarify how the orbiting outpost would be run after 2010 when U.S. space shuttles will retire.

Koptev said that Russia would be willing to offer its Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the station after the U.S. shuttles retire, but that would require renegotiating the original documents on the station.

Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have served as the only link to the station since the U.S. shuttle fleet was grounded pending investigation into the destruction of the shuttle Columbia during its return to Earth in February 2003.

Koptev said that his agency has enough funds to send the two Soyuz and two Progress spacecraft necessary to operate the station this year. He said that Russian and European space officials are currently negotiating the possibility of sending a European astronaut on a six-month mission to the station in a Soyuz.

Several European astronauts so far have flown only weeklong missions to the station. Such "taxi missions" were used in 2001 and 2002 to send millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth on multimillion-dollar passenger trips to the station, providing a boost to the Russian space budget.

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