ZHUKOVSKY, Russia (Reuters) - Moscow no longer sees manned spaceflight as its top priority but remains committed to its International Space Station obligations, the head of Russian space agency Roskosmos said on Wednesday.
Russia holds a monopoly on flights to and from the 16-nation station. Soyuz launches from its Baikonur cosmodrome are now the only way to space since the United States retired its 30-year shuttle programme in July.
NASA pays it more than $50 million per flight to send its astronauts to the space outpost.
Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said Russia was spending almost half of its space budget on manned flights and needed to shift focus to more technology-oriented projects. He added however it would stand by its station commitments.
“Unfortunately manned spaceflight accounts for an unjustifiably large part of the budget: It makes up 48 percent,” he told reporters at Russia’s flagship MAKS airshow near Moscow.
He added Roskomos would narrow its focus to satellite communication, navigation systems and meterological study.
The change in Moscow’s priorities comes half a century after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to blast into space in 1961 from the Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan.
While the 16-partner nations in the project have long had a plan to de-orbit the station, a European space official on Wednesday said its lifespan would likely be extended beyond 2020 — the current commitment — but “obviously not until 2035.”
As the initial rapture with space station has faded, critics say Russia’s reliance on the Soyuz as a cash cow has too long absorbed the agency’s attentions and stunted innovation.
Popovkin, who replaced veteran space chief Anatoly Perminov earlier this year following a string of embarrassing launch failures, surprisingly took the lead on some of those charges this month when he said scientists had nothing more to learn from low-Earth orbital flight.
On Wednesday, he said it was clear industry scientist have Mars in their sights, but such space missions were still “far-off” and not on the agenda until after 2020.
But at least two projects aiming to take Russia there were on display at MAKS.
One, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt unmanned spacecraft, a mock-up of which was shown at the show, is due to launch in November to take soil samples from one of Mars’ moons.
Meanwhile, at a nearby stand Russian engineers showcased research aimed at building the first nuclear-powered spaceraft to fuel deep space travel.
Editing by Maria Golovnina