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updated 4/12/2004 4:02:04 AM ET 2004-04-12T08:02:04

Russian space experts say they could send a six-man crew to Mars within a decade at a cost of only $3.5 billion, but space officials dismissed the project as nonsense.

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A researcher at the Central Research Institute for Machine-Building, Russia's premier authority on space equipment design, said Friday that the institute would carry out the project with funding promised by Aerospace Systems, a little-known private Russian company that says it draws no resources from the state budget.

The program envisions six people traveling to Mars and exploring it for several months before returning to Earth. The expedition is designed to last three years in all, and would depend on a fully equipped spacecraft containing its own garden, medical facilities and other amenities.

Georgy Uspensky, a department head at the institute, said that the comparatively small budget for the program reflected plans to use already-existing spacecraft.

"This will be our first flight ... we will fly on what we have," Uspensky said.

Is the cost realistic?
By contrast, President Bush's call for restoring manned flights to the moon is estimated to cost $12 billion over the next five years, just for the first phase of the initiative. Estimates for the cost of the entire U.S. moon-and-Mars initiative range into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Oleg Alexandrov, director of Aerospace Systems, said that the flight was scheduled for 2009, but Uspensky predicted it would happen around 2011-13.

Earlier this year, Bush proposed a manned mission to visit the planet but did not set a timeline for such a trip, which American scientists believe would probably remain decades away.

Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian Space Agency, said he had never heard of the project and that it "was absolutely impossible" to implement with such a meager budget and in such a short time period.

"Both U.S. and Russian experts have estimated that the Mars project costs around a trillion dollars. How can they launch this with so little money?" Gorbunov said.

Alexandrov didn't explain how his firm would raise the funds, but said one of the reasons he thought such a mission would be profitable was it could involve a "reality" television show.

A resurgence for Russia?
The Soviet Union put the first man and the first satellite in space and, in 1988, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was the first to propose a joint U.S.-Russian manned mission to Mars. But Washington's reaction was lukewarm, and the Soviet Union collapsed just three years later, leaving Russia's space program in shambles.

Its space industries have struggled ever since. The single interplanetary robotic mission that Russia managed to mount since the Soviet collapse failed miserably in 1996. Despite the money crunch, designers have continued drafting projects of new spaceships.

"There are two goals here: to be the first ones and to show the rest of the world that this is possible. We'll be the first ones to do this, and this will boost Russia's national prestige," said Viktor Ivanov, another researcher from the institute.

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