Putin aims for the stars with £33bn space programme

Russian President unveils ambitious plans at new launchpad site, including manned flight to Mars

President Vladimir Putin used the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight to announce billions of pounds of investment for an ambitious new Russian space programme, in a bid to return the country to the forefront of exploring the Universe.

The Russian President travelled to the site of a planned new launchpad, in the far east of Russia, near the Chinese border. He promised that at least 1.6 trillion roubles (more than £30bn) would be ploughed into the space programme before the end of the decade. He also said he was considering setting up a special ministry to deal with space travel. 

Mr Putin spoke by video-link to astronauts on the International Space Station, in honour of Cosmonaut Day, a holiday marked in Russia to celebrate the anniversary of Gagarin’s launch into space in 1961. “I want to congratulate the crew on this holiday,” Mr Putin said. “These are greetings from the construction site of our future.”

Russia still uses Baikonur cosmodrome to launch flights, the same place where Gagarin first left for space 52 years ago. But the former Soviet space-hub is now located inside Kazakhstan, and is leased from the country by Russia. The city, isolated in the Central Asian steppe, was the hub of Soviet space travel and now functions as a small exclave of Russia in the middle of Kazakhstan.

Mr Putin insisted that despite the launch of the new complex, named Vostochny, Russia would continue to rent Baikonur until the lease expires in 2050. Vostochny is expected to open in two years and will give the country the opportunity to launch spacecraft from its own territory. It will be able to handle manned space-flights from 2018, and Russian officials have said that the project cost around £6bn. Mr Putin told the astronauts on the International Space Station that the new launchpad would be open to cooperation with US and European space agencies. Currently, all astronauts headed for the International Space Station blast off from Baikonur following the end of the NASA space shuttle programme in 2011.

Yesterday, the head of the Russian space agency, Vladimir Popovkin, said that Russia would begin scientific missions to the moon in 2015. “Scientists believe there could be water at the north and south poles of the moon, and that must be explored,” he said in televised remarks. He said an initial set of explorational flights would begin in 2015, and a lunar base could be set up in further stages. There are also plans for flight to Mars, including eventually a manned flight. A recent experiment in Moscow kept six volunteers enclosed in a mock-up spacecraft for 500 days in a Moscow scientific institute to simulate the conditions of a mission to the red planet.

Mr Putin told the Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is responsible for overseeing the space agency Roskosmos, to look into creating a special ministry to deal with space travel, in order to give a higher priority to the sector.

Not all Russian politicians were in a serious mood on Cosmonaut Day, however. The nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested that Russia should use its space programme to send leaders of the liberal anti-Kremlin opposition to another planet, and leave them there.