The Russian space agency on Tuesday ordered design work to start for a next-generation spaceship capable of flying missions to the moon, setting the ground for a potential new space race with the United States.
The space agency granted the state-controlled RKK Energiya company the $23 million contract for the initial work on a new, reusable craft to replace the 40-year-old Soyuz spacecraft.
The as-yet-unnamed Russian spaceship could emerge as a potential competitor to NASA's prospective Orion spacecraft.
Design requirements for the Russian craft appear similar to Orion's specification, prompting some experts to nickname it "Orionski."
Orion is scheduled to begin carrying humans to the International Space Station from 2015 and to the moon from 2020.
Alexei Krasnov, the chief of manned space programs for the Russian space agency, said last week that the prospective Russian spacecraft is set to make its maiden flight before 2020, without elaborating.
James Oberg, an experienced aerospace engineer who worked on NASA's space shuttle program and is now a space consultant, wrote in a commentary that the new Russian space program could help NASA win funds for its plan to return astronauts to the moon.
"This will give NASA a long-hoped-for boost in Congress by echoing the space race motivations of the 1960s," Oberg said.
Energiya beat the other leading state-controlled spacecraft builder, the Khrunichev company, for the prestigious order. It was announced on a government Web site.
Energiya has until June 2010 to complete the initial design. The company builds the Soyuz and its unmanned cargo version, named Progress, which are not reusable.
Krasnov said the new spacecraft will be capable of carrying a crew of six and a payload of 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) to orbit around the Earth. The Soyuz can only carry a crew of three.
Krasnov told reporters last week that the new spaceship should also be capable of delivering a crew of four to lunar orbit.
"We want the new ship to be a step into the future, not just a scaled up version of the Soyuz," he said.
Russia plans to start construction next year of Vostochny, a new space launch facility in the far eastern Amur region near China. The new cosmodrome is expected to host launches of unmanned spacecraft beginning in 2015 and the first manned missions starting in 2018.
Russia currently uses the Soviet-built Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for all of its manned space missions and most important commercial launches. Another launch facility in Plesetsk, northern Russia, is mostly used to launch military satellites.
Windfall oil revenues of the past years have allowed the Kremlin to spend more on Russia's space program which had suffered badly in the post-Soviet economic meltdown. But with Russia facing its worst financial crisis since 1998, the government may find it hard to fund the ambitious program.