Space race is on again as Russia puts £6.1bn into reaching Mars

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Russia has launched an ambitious, multibillion-dollar space programme designed to restore its cash-starved space agency to its former Soviet glory.

The cabinet has earmarked 305 billion roubles (£6.1 bn) for the 2006-15 period, an amount it hopes will pave the way for a manned mission to Mars and joint manned missions to the Moon with Nasa.

Moscow's bullishness about further exploration comes at a time when the US is nervously trying to relaunch its own shuttle programme, which was suspended in 2003 after the Columbia disaster. An instrument malfunction caused the eagerly awaited launch of the Discovery shuttle to be postponed on Thursday until after the weekend.

Moscow is keen not to be left behind. Some of the Russian money will be used to develop and build a new six-seater space shuttle called Klipper that will replace the current three-seater Soyuz manned launch vehicle which is 38 years old and in urgent need of renewal.

Russia's achievements in space such as Yuri Gagarin's space flight in 1961, the world first manned mission, remain a source of enduring national pride.

However, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 its space agency, Roskosmos, has suffered severe funding problems that have curbed its ambitions.

Last year was the first since the USSR's demise that the agency received its full funding.

President Vladimir Putin has made it clear, however, that he wants Russia's space industry to rekindle its Soviet-era greatness. For although the Cold War and the space race are over, Russia feels its space programme is one of the few Soviet legacies it should develop and maintain in order to qualify as "a great nation" in outsiders' eyes and not be left behind by its old rival the United States.

The Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov admitted that Russia had a lot of ground to make up. "Now we are only catching up so that we will be back at the level we were at," he said. "Everyone knows what sort of power we had and it is to be hoped that it is still in our hands."

While the amount of funding is significant by Russian standards it is still less than America spends on its space programme in one year and the Russian funds are supposed to last a decade and fund a wide array of projects.

One such project is a mock space flight to Mars that will be simulated at Moscow's Star City, the headquarters of the Russian Space Agency.

Six volunteers will spend 500 days locked in a spacecraft to learn what kind of nutritional needs, breathing systems and other equipment would be needed for a flight to the Red Planet as a rehearsal for the real thing.

The volunteers will be expected to control their water and oxygen systems and even produce some of their own food on board. Their physical and mental health will be closely monitored.

Moscow hopes the money will also stretch to sending a probe to one of Mars's moons to collect samples and that it will facilitate the launch of new satellites.