While NASA inches ahead with plans for a new Crew Exploration Vehicle, the Russians are racing to replace their aging Soyuz fleet with a futuristic manned spacecraft designed to give Russia the competitive edge in commercial space exploration.
Russia's space program, once fueled by national pride alone, is now awash in petrodollars and big plans. Officials openly discuss blue-sky ideas—mining the moon for helium-3 fuel and reaching Mars in the next 25 years, for instance.
But it will take a new shuttle service to accomplish that. There has been a fierce competition to move ahead in space without breaking the bank. "We're focused on economic efficiency, and that's why we're going to get investors," says Nikolai Sevastyanov, president of RKK Energia, one of three Russian companies that presented designs to Rosaviacosmos, the Russian space agency.
Energia, which also does a brisk side business in more mundane products like coffeemakers and vacuum cleaners, has so far created the most talked about design. Its Kliper craft can make multiple voyages and seat six passengers, three more than the aging, nonreusable Soyuz. That would allow four seats to be sold off to foreign astronauts—including Americans, the Russians like to point out—and to the new cash cows of the cosmos: space tourists. The winged Kliper craft would subject passengers to only modest launch g-force stresses and would gently glide into the atmosphere upon return, resulting in cheaper flights and shorter training periods for tourists with busy earthly schedules.
Other competitors include Molniya's space plane, which can be launched in midair, and an updated version of Khrunichev's TKS manned transport ship, a partially reusable unwinged capsule first designed in the 1960s.
Russia is hoping the European Space Agency will help finance or build the winning spacecraft concept, despite failing to provide research funds last winter. Russia's space budget is still less than a tenth of NASA's, but prospects look good nonetheless. "Russia without manned spaceflight would be like having Russia without the Kremlin," says Christian Feichtinger of the ESA. Energia proposes that its Kliper could be introduced by 2015, at an initial cost of $1.5 billion for five ships.