New Space Race To The Moon: Russia Recruits Cosmonauts For Lunar Mission

Norman Byrd

Russia has added its name to the growing list of nations sending manned missions to the Moon in the next few years in what looks now to be a space race to return to lunar surface, a feat that has not been attempted since 1972. Russian officials announced this week that they are recruiting cosmonauts in an effort to put the country's first humans on the surface of Earth's nearest cosmic neighbor, something that to date only the United States has managed to do.

Russian space corporation Roscosmos announced March 15, according to the Daily Mail, that it was actively recruiting cosmonauts to pilot a Federatsiya spacecraft planned for a Moon landing sometime around or after 2021. The recruitment will be an open contest to put together a group of six or eight trainees to man the spacecraft and carry out the lunar mission.

"The selection begins today, and it will last till the end of the year," Roscosmos First Deputy CEO Aleksandr Ivanov told a news conference.

"The results will be summarized at the end of December, and a group of six to eight trainees is to be selected."

The Rocosmos press service reported that selected cosmonauts will be the first ever to crew the new generation spacecraft Federatsiya. Thet will also be the first Russians to ever set foot on the Moon.

"The purpose is to select the best specialists who already have certain knacks of operating space or air technologies," the press release said.

"They will be the first pilots of Russia's future spacecraft Federatsiya. All will be trained under the International Space Program and will be the first Russians to fly to the Moon. Those with experience in the aircraft-building and space rocket industry of the Russian Federation will enjoy priority."

The first unmanned orbital test flight of the Federatsiya spacecraft, which will be launched into space atop the new Angara rocket, is scheduled in 2021. It will launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, which is a new spaceport currently under construction. Located in Far East Russia (in Amur Oblast and just north of the China border), the new Cosmodrome is expected to be completed in 2018 and will be employed to reduce the current dependence on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Moscow Times reported in 2011 that the Vostochny Cosmodrome would account for 45 percent of Russian space launches after it begins operation, complimenting the launches at Baikonur and Plesetsk (located in Arkhangelsk Oblast, roughly 800 kilometers -- 500 miles -- north of Moscow).

Russia's announcement that it was entering the space race to the Moon comes just a week after China announced that it was working on a recoverable spacecraft that would have the capability of both achieving low-Earth orbital status and landing on the Moon. The newspaper Science and Technology Daily noted, citing spacecraft designer Zhang Bainian, that not only would the craft be recoverable, it would also hold multiple astronauts.

Zhang compared China's spacecraft with that of the Orion craft being constructed by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Still, China plans to put a man -- or woman -- on the Moon by 2025 or so, although The Wall Street Journal reported last year that such a date might be premature for the nation's space program which launched its first manned orbital mission in 2003.

U.S. President Donald Trump charged NASA in February with ascertaining the feasibility of making the unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule later this year a manned operation that would return the U.S. to the Moon. It is unclear whether or not such a project can be mounted without causing extensive delays with the program.

Regardless, Trump's latest budget plan calls for spending cuts to NASA, which would seriously curtail any effort of going to the Moon in the near future. And at present, the United States has contracted many of its space launches through Russia, at least until the Space Launch System (designed to lift the Orion into space), is operational.

It is difficult to forecast which nation will be the first to reach the Moon again, but Russia appears to have the advantage at the moment, although China's fast-tracked space program could very well win out. Of course, the United States, depending on what stage of development Orion is in and whether or not more favorable budgets for NASA in the coming years could facilitate an American return to the Moon, could just as easily put someone on the Moon in the next few years.

It looks very much like a space race to the Moon is on...

[Featured Image by AP/Russian Television/AP Images]