Russia's Energia has begun design work on a reusable six-crew capsule weighing twice as much as the current three-crew Soyuz TMA. The new crew transfer vehicle, with a launch mass of 12-14t, would require a larger booster, possibly based on the Soyuz.

NASA, meanwhile, has acknowledged that the first Space Shuttle return-to-flight mission has slipped into 2005. The delay from September/October to January 2005 at the earliest is the result of continuing research into airflow over the external tank as NASA tries to eliminate debris shedding.

No cost or timescale for development of the new Russian manned spacecraft or launch vehicle has been revealed. Yuri Koptev, head of Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos, says it has not been decided which booster would launch the larger crew capsule.

Energia favours upgrading the man-rated Soyuz, now used to launch the 7.1t Soyuz TMA capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The company is developing the uprated Soyuz-2, capable of placing 8.4t in low-Earth orbit. Koptev says Energia is also working on the Aurora, a development of the Soyuz with 12t LEO capability, and has plans for a follow-on Omega vehicle.

The Soyuz-2 is intended for commercial satellite launches from Kourou, French Guiana under a €320-325 million ($407-413 million) European-Russian project. Two or three test launches are planned from Plesetsk in Russia, the first at year-end, before equatorial launches from Kourou begin in 2006.

There are no plans for manned launches of the Soyuz-2 "within the next three to five years", says Koptev. Launches to meet Russia's commitment to the ISS will continue to be made from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, he says, because manned launches from Kourou would cost twice as much. Koptev says the agency has funds to launch two Soyuz and two unmanned Progress flights to the ISS this year.

Source: Flight International