Russia will send a team of cosmonauts to the Moon, 60 years after Neil Armstrong’s Apollo mission effectively ended the US-Soviet space race.
A spacecraft will “conduct a demonstrative manned circumlunar test flight with the subsequent landing of cosmonauts on [the Moon’s] surface and their return to Earth” by 2030, according to a leaked strategy document from Russia’s space agency, Roskosmos.
Moscow has periodically announced ambitious plans for space exploration in recent years, but this is the first time a firm deadline has been set for a manned lunar mission.
Russia won the first round of the space race when it launched the first man to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Jr, however, fulfilled John F Kennedy’s promise to reach the Moon by the end of the decade, landing there on July 20, 1969, with Nasa’s Apollo 11. The Soviet Union subsequently cancelled its lunar programmes.
Plans to send cosmonauts to the Moon could help revive Russia’s space programme after a troubled period. A series of satellites crashed last year and in January the Mars probe, Fobos Grunt, fell to Earth after a faulty launch two months earlier. Last week, Roskosmos suffered another humiliation after reports that the head of the agency, Vladimir Popovkin, had sustained head injuries after an alleged brawl at work.
Yury Karash, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, said that prestige would not be restored with a symbolic flight to the Moon. “Back in the 1960s the Soviet Union was competing head-to-head with the United States,” he said.
“But it is hard to find a better way to hurt Russian prestige and emphasise Russian technological backwardness than by sending cosmonauts to the Moon around 2030, 60 years after Apollo.”
Mr Karash said resources would be better spent on funding a manned flight to Mars, which would stimulate science because of the demand for new technology to serve a 450-day round trip to the Red Planet.
The Soviet Union had two Moon programmes which it closed in the 1970s after the success of Apollo 11. The US knew about them, but their existence was not admitted publicly until 1990.
In the post-Soviet era, Russia has co-operated with other countries on Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). It currently shoulders the burden of shuttling supplies to the ISS in Soyuz capsules. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and president-elect, wants to restore Russia’s space programme to its former glory.
Speaking last year on the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, he said: “Russia should not limit itself to the role of an international space ferryman.”
Mr Putin said piloted space missions should be revived by 2018, when the first flights are expected from Vostochny, a $13.5 billion (£8.6 billion) spaceport being built in Russia’s far east.
The Soviet Union, the United States and China are the only countries so far to have launched manned space flights. India’s space agency declared in 2010 that it wanted to launch a human mission to the Moon by 2020, and scientists have indicated that China could do the same by 2025.
Barack Obama, the US president, said in 2010 that he hoped to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, but he cut funding for robotic missions to the planet last month. He also cancelled George W Bush’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
Scientists believe that precious metals and Helium-3, a rare isotope that has potential for power generation, could be extracted from the Moon’s surface. Roskosmos has also suggested that a base built on the Moon could be used as a launch pad for a flight to Mars.