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By Dmitry Solovyov
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and Europe are teaming up to build a spaceship which will fly astronauts to the moon, Russia said on Wednesday, although the European Space Agency struck a more cautious note.
The first test flight is set for 2015 and the first manned flight is planned for 2018, Russian space agency Roskosmos said.
“The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roskosmos both have the technologies and unique experience in designing various space systems to be able to create jointly a hi-tech vehicle,” Roskosmos said on its website (www.roscosmos.ru).
“(This would) enable us to carry crews of up to six people to near-earth and lunar orbits.” Roskosmos said the craft would allow “expeditions to the moon” but did not say whether landings were envisaged.
Russia’s single-use Soyuz, lately prone to risky landings, has borne the brunt of carrying crews to the International Space Station while U.S. space shuttles are set to be retired in 2010.
The ESA was more cautious about the plan.
“This is factually correct in the sense that indeed this is the outline of the system,” ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said by telephone from Paris.
"But we haven’t decided upon anything yet … It’s too premature. It’s still at the level of studies.
“In November, at a ministerial meeting, it’s not taken for granted this option will be the one that finally takes shape.”
The new spacecraft, with wings and a cone-shaped module, would be launched by a Russian booster rocket from the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East region of Amur, Roskosmos said.
Russia currently rents the Soviet-era Baikonur cosmodrome from Kazakhstan.
Russia’s Soyuz manned spacecraft and the Progress cargo vehicle have been the workhorses delivering crews and cargo to the ISS since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003.
But crews returning from the space outpost suffered from huge gravitational forces and rough landings after Soyuz capsules slid off into so-called “ballistic descents” twice in a row in October and April.
In the latest case, the Soyuz-TMA capsule with South Korea’s first astronaut Yi So-yeon, U.S. commander Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko made a rough landing hundreds of kilometers (miles) off target on April 19.
Russia called an inquiry into the accident. Roskosmos strongly denied media reports at the time that the crew could have died because, for some time, the capsule had been falling upside down and the escape hatch had started burning.
“It was really very serious and dangerous,” a Russian space industry source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
“One of the two modules attached to the capsule failed to separate from it on re-entry, and for quite a while the capsule was plummeting upside down and its hatch – normally on top of the capsule – was exposed to extremely high temperatures.”
“As they were falling, Peggy saw the unseparated module dangling by the capsule. Then it fell off somehow.”
The temperature was so high that the outside metal antenna for radio contacts burned out, the source said.
The United States is also worried about the reliability of the Russian program.
“They (Russians) understand the risk of what’s going on. They’re as concerned as we are about this event,” Congressional Quarterly, which covers Capitol Hill, quoted NASA administrator William Gerstenmaier as telling a House of Representatives hearing on the ISS program last month.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Robert Woodward)