By Denis Dyomkin
VOSTOCHNY COSMODROME, Russia, April 12 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin told astronauts on the International Space Station on Friday that Russia will launch the first manned flights from its soil in 2018 from a new launch pad he said will be used to explore the Moon and deep space.
Speaking by video link from the Vostochny Cosmodrome construction site in the Far East region of Amur, Putin said he hoped the facility will also be used by the United States and Europe - playing up cooperation on the 52nd anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight, which set off the Cold War space race and is celebrated as Space Exploration Day in Russia.
'I want to congratulate the crew on this holiday,' Putin said. 'These are not just any greetings, these are greetings from the construction site of our future.'
Russia wants the launch site near the Chinese border, where it hopes to exploit a new generation of rockets carrying heavier payloads, to rival its current site in Kazakhstan, the lease of which has been in contention since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Since NASA retired its shuttles last year, Russian rockets blasting off from the Soviet-built Baikonour launch pad provide astronauts around the world with the only ride to the $100-billion research laboratory some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
While NASA pays a steep fee for the trip, the upkeep and lease of the Baikonour Cosmodrome is at Russia's expense.
'I very much hope that it will be used not only by our specialists, but by our colleagues from the United States, Europe and other countries,' Putin said, while inspecting a mock-up of the completed facility at Vostochny, some 250 km from the city of Blagoveshchensk.
'Space is a sphere of activity that allows us to forget about all difficult international relations... not think about problems but about the future.'
Putin, whose ambition is to restore Moscow's Soviet-era might after a series of embarrassing failed launches, said the Vostochny site will open for unmanned launches in 2015 and manned flights in 2018.
'It's clear that in the 21st century Russia must preserve its status as a leading space power,' Putin said.
Putin said the space launch market could grow to be worth $1.5 trillion by 2030 from between $300 billion and $400 billion today. He said Russia will spend 1.6 trillion roubles ($52 million) on space exploration through 2020.
Even after the new site is built, Putin said Russia will continue to exploit Baikonour, which it leases at a cost of $115 million a year under a deal that expires in 2050. But he said the facility on Kazakh soil was 'physically aged.'
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall) Keywords: RUSSIA SPACE/
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