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Russia promises new spaceship, cosmodrome

/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia will test a next-generation spacecraft, build a new cosmodrome and even consider a manned mission to Mars after 2035, the nation's space chief said Wednesday.

But Anatoly Perminov conceded that Russian spacecraft depend on imported electronics, speaking to lawmakers a day after the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961.

"We have to acknowledge that imported components account for 65 to 70 percent of electronics in the spacecraft launched last year and those set to be launched this year," Perminov told the upper house of Russia's parliament in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed Tuesday that space will remain a key government priority, but skeptics said the nation has done virtually nothing to develop a successor to the 43-year-old Soyuz spaceship.

Russia has used the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, whose designs date back to the 1960s, to send an increasing number of crew and cargo to the International Space Station. They will become the sole link to the space outpost after the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis closes out the U.S. program this summer.

Some cosmonauts warned, however, that while Russia stands to reap short-term benefits from its monopoly in ferrying crews and supplies to the space station, it could quickly fall behind America after the U.S. builds a new-generation Orion spaceship.

Russian officials have set a tentative launch of a new spacecraft to replace Soyuz for 2015, but cosmonauts and industry watchers have said its development has barely begun.

Perminov said Russia will need to make at least 15 successful unmanned launches of the new craft, named Rus, before it can carry a crew into orbit. He said that program of unmanned tests will take about two years.

Perminov also told lawmakers that Russia this year will start building a new launch pad in Russia's Far East, called Vostochny. Officials have said the first launches from Vostochny are expected in 2015.

Russia is now using the Soviet-built Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for all its manned spaceflights and a large share of its satellite launches. Russia has a lease on Baikonur until 2050 and has paid around $115 million to Kazakhstan in rent under a 2004 agreement.

The Plesetsk launch pad in Russia's north has mostly been used for launches of military satellites.

Asked by lawmakers about prospects for a human flight to Mars, Perminov said it makes little sense at today's level of technology.

"It's absurd to go there using the spacecraft and rockets that we have today," he said.

Perminov said a manned mission to Mars could only be launched around 2035 after new nuclear engines are developed.