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Russia plans to team with Europe on moonship

Russia's space agency says it is teaming up with its European counterpart to build a spaceship that will fly astronauts to the moon, but the European Space Agency struck a more cautious note.
/ Source: Reuters

Russia's space agency says it is teaming up with its European counterpart to build a spaceship that will fly astronauts to the moon, but the European Space Agency struck a more cautious note.

The first test flight is set for 2015 and the first manned flight is planned for 2018, Russia's Federal Space Agency said Wednesday.

“ESA and Roskosmos [Russia's space agency] both have the technologies and unique experience in designing various space systems to be able to create jointly a high-tech vehicle,” the agency said on its Web site. “[This would] enable us to carry crews of up to six people to near-Earth and lunar orbits.”

Roskosmos said the craft would allow “expeditions to the moon” but did not say whether landings were envisaged.

The ESA was more cautious about the plan.

“This is factually correct in the sense that indeed this is the outline of the system,” ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said by telephone from Paris. “But we haven’t decided upon anything yet. ... It’s too premature. It’s still at the level of studies. In November, at a ministerial meeting, it’s not taken for granted this option will be the one that finally takes shape.”

The new spacecraft, with wings and a cone-shaped module, would be launched by a Russian booster rocket from the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East region of Amur, Russia's space agency said.

Russia currently rents the Soviet-era Baikonur cosmodrome from Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Soyuz manned spacecraft and the Progress cargo vehicle have delivered crews and cargo to the space station for years, taking a primary role in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy. Even today, with the shuttle fleet back in business, most of the space station's residents arrive on Soyuz craft. When the fleet is retired in 2010, the Soyuz will again take on a lead role in space station resupply.

Questions about Russia
However, some have questioned whether Russia will be up to the task. Crews returning from the space station experienced rough descents and landings in October and April when Soyuz capsules slid off into high-G ballistic descents.

In the latest case, the Soyuz-TMA capsule with South Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, U.S. station commander Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko made a rough landing hundreds of kilometers (miles) off target on April 19.

Russia called an inquiry into the accident. Space officials strongly denied media reports that the crew could have died — but one source said that the incident was a cause for serious concern.

“It was really very serious and dangerous,” a Russian space industry source told Reuters, requesting anonymity. “One of the two modules attached to the capsule failed to separate from it on re-entry, and for quite a while the capsule was plummeting upside down and its hatch — normally on top of the capsule — was exposed to extremely high temperatures.”

“As they were falling, Peggy saw the unseparated module dangling by the capsule. Then it fell off somehow.”

The temperature was so high that the outside metal antenna for radio contacts burned out, the source said.

The United States is also worried about the reliability of the Russian program.

“They [the Russians] understand the risk of what’s going on. They’re as concerned as we are about this event,” Congressional Quarterly quoted NASA's associate administrator for space operations, William Gerstenmaier, as telling a House hearing on the space station program last month.