(AP) -- Russia will launch its manned space missions from a new center in the Far East in 2018, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Saturday, as the country seeks greater independence for its space program.
Putin made the comments as he inaugurated the start of construction for the new cosmodrome at the former missile defense base of Vostochny, outside the town of Uglegorsk, 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) east of Moscow, and a few hundred miles away from China.
Russia currently uses the Soviet-built Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan for all of its manned space missions and other commercial launches as well as a smaller center in northern Russia for military satellite launches.
Russia has a lease on Baikonur until 2050 and has paid around $115 million to Kazakhstan in rent since the agreement in 2004.
Putin stressed the "strategic" need for Moscow to have "an independent access to the space." Although Baikonur is located in a "friendly state," it is still owned by another country, he said.
Russia's prime minister said on state-run Rossiya channel that Vostochny will host all launches of Russian-manned spacecraft beginning in 2018. Launches of first unmanned spacecraft from the new center are expected in 2015.
Putin described the construction as "one of the biggest and ambitious projects of modern Russia" which "gives opportunity to thousands of young professionals to use their talent."
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that the first stage of the construction will take more than 24 billion rubles ($779 million).
Like Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Russia's Amur Region in the Far East, where the new center is being built, is sparsely populated. New technologies will allow the new launch pad to be ten times smaller compared to what Baikonur occupies in the Kazakh steppe, said Russia's space agency chief Anatoly Perminov.
Windfall from oil revenues over the past years have allowed the Kremlin to spend more on Russia's space program, which had suffered in the post-Soviet economic meltdown.
Explore further: Communications satellite launched into space