Putin unveils $62b drive for Russian space supremacy

MOSCOW (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin on Friday unveiled a new US$50 billion (S$62 billion) drive for Russia to preserve its status as a top space power, including the construction of a brand new cosmodrome from where humans will fly to space by the end of the decade.

Fifty-two years to the day since Yuri Gagarin became the Soviet Union's greatest hero by making the first human flight into space, Putin inspected the new Vostochny (Eastern) cosmodrome Russia is building in the Amur region of the Far East.

Mr Putin said in a live link-up with the multinational crew of the International Space Sation (ISS) that Russia hoped to have the first launches from Vostochny in 2015 and the first manned launches in 2018.

"It's going to be a great launch pad. It took a long time to choose but now work is fully underway," said Mr Putin in comments broadcast on state television, adding that Vostochny would be fully operational by 2020.

Russia still carries out all manned launches from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan - the same place where Gagarin made his historic flight - but this has been shadowed in recent years by disputes with the Kazakh authorities over the lease terms.

The Russian space programme has been hurt in recent years by a string of launch failures of unmanned probes and satellites but Putin vowed Moscow would continue to ramp up spending.

He said that from 2013-2020, Russia would be spending 1.6 trillion rubles (S$62 billion) on its space sector, a growth far greater than any other space power.

Mr Putin complained that the country was behind other states in space activities other than manned flights, which he said had long been the "priority" of the Russian space programme.

"There is a big gap between us and other space powers in the technology for so-called deep-space programmes," he said.

One of Russia's most embarrassing failures was the loss of its Phobos-Grunt probe to Mars in 2012 which ended up crashing back into Earth rather than even coming close to completing its mission of visiting a Martian moon.

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