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Russian space chief slams Mars plan

Russia’s top space official on Thursday said U.S. plans for human missions to Mars were unrealistic and insisted the international space station should be the focus of exploration.
/ Source: Reuters

Russia’s top space official on Thursday said U.S. plans for human missions to Mars were unrealistic and said the emphasis for space exploration should be completion of the international space station.

Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, distanced himself from President Vladimir Putin’s comments this week that Russia could work with the United States on President Bush’s ambitious plans.

He was particularly critical of Bush’s plan for designing a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the space station, the moon and Mars, saying he did not understand how this could be done since each destination had different needs.

“Yes, we can agree that certain elements could be used. However, there cannot be a universal spacecraft, as is being suggested at the moment,” he said. “I don’t think we will work together on this project.”

He dismissed Bush’s ideas as being an eye-catching ploy linked to his campaign for re-election.

Space station priority
Koptev said the 16-nation space station was Russia’s priority and called for construction work there to be completed within the original timeframe of the next two years, despite a year's delay in construction due to the Columbia tragedy and the grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet.

“We are insisting on the execution of the decision taken at the end of 2002 in Tokyo, which says the construction of the station should be finished within 1.5 to 2 years,” Koptev told reporters, referring to a meeting between the leaders of space agencies involved in the space station.

He also said he wanted to boost the number of astronauts on the station to six as soon as possible, but did not explain how this would be done. Currently a two-man crew is stationed on the orbital platform.

Russia's leading role
The building of the space station has been delayed since last February when the United States withdrew its shuttles — the only craft capable of delivering large sections of the station to the space station for assembly.

It grounded its entire fleet after its Columbia craft disintegrated on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board. Space officials have said they expect the shuttle to return to service in September or October.

For the past year Russia has been the sole supplier of crewed and cargo ships to the station. On Thursday it launched a Progress cargo ship, delivering food, fuel, water and scientific equipment to the outpost.

Koptev said the European Space Agency could play a key part in the station, when its new cargo ship — the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV — makes its scheduled debut journey to the space station by September.

When Bush outlined his space plans earlier this month, he said shuttles would be retired in 2010 once the space station was complete.

Koptev said Bush’s plans to send humans back to the moon and then on to Mars were simply connected to his election campaign, as had been the case with previous U.S. presidents.

“We understand that to a large extent our U.S. colleagues came up with these plans as part of a pre-election campaign,” he said, adding that funding was the primary barrier.