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Russians to ride a nuclear-powered spacecraft to Mars

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“The former USSR had a lot of accumulated experience in this field,” lofting scores of nuclear-spy satellites over three decades, he says.

“The idea (of nuclear-powered spaceflight) has bright prospects, and if Russia could stage a breakthrough it could become our main contribution to any future international program of deep space exploration,” Mr. Ionin adds.

Russia’s space program has recovered from its post-Soviet slump but still has not succeeded in launching any major independent projects and remains a space-going taxicab for other nations and tour operator for wealthy thrill-seekers (such as Cirque founder Guy Laliberte) willing to pay for a brief stay on the International Space Station.

Russian scientists complain that their post-Soviet space program is chronically underfunded. But when a project is endorsed by top leadership (the Sochi 2014 Olympics, for example), recent history indicates the funding is likely to be found.

A breakthrough in atomic-powered propulsion would loft Russia back into the front ranks of space-faring nations and make it the indispensable partner for future international space efforts. And with the US forging ahead with its own next-generation replacement for the space shuttle, the Ares 1-X (launched Wednesday), Russia could use a public relations victory in this realm.

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