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Russia launches its first lunar probe in nearly 50 years

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

** Russia has launched its first mission to the surface of the moon in nearly half a century. Its aim is to become the first country to carry out a remote uncrewed landing on the lunar south pole. As NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow, the Russian moonshot comes with Soviet space nostalgia in the air and the war in Ukraine behind the scenes.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The Luna 25 mission blasted off early Friday from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Far East.

VITALY YEGOROV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Russian space analyst Vitaly Yegorov says the image of a Russian Soyuz rocket racing into the dawn sky was admittedly beautiful - and the easy part.

YEGOROV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: But the real intrigue will be the landing, he tells NPR. The Russian probe is expected to reach lunar orbit mid-next week before attempting the first-ever remote soft landing on the moon's south pole on August 21. No easy task, says Yegorov.

YEGOROV: (Through interpreter) It's a demanding and complex operation. Many countries have tried unmanned landings and crashed at that stage. Russia will either join them, or it will be a breakthrough for modern Russian space technology.

MAYNES: The hope is Luna 25 will spend the next year on the lunar surface conducting a range of experiments. Most intriguingly, a search for signs of frozen water within the lunar rocks and soil, says Roscosmos head Yury Borisov.

YURY BORISOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Water opens up the serious prospect of constructing lunar bases that could become a start pad for deep space exploration, Borisov told media following the launch. The Lunar 25 mission was years in the making. It also comes amid Russia's war in Ukraine, loading the lunar rover with unexpected geopolitical baggage. In the months leading up to launch day, the Kremlin made no secret - the Russian space program is inheriting the country's go-it-alone ethos in the face of a hostile West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In an impromptu and very televised meeting with workers at the Vostochny Cosmodrome last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted the Soviet Union had always existed under Western sanctions and yet went on to launch the world's first satellite as well as the first man and later the first woman in space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: We did it all in complete technological isolation, said Putin. Do you really think modern Russia, with its technological capabilities, can't do the same? And he pointed to Luna 25 and future missions as symbols of the country's continued space prowess.

YEGOROV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Yegorov, the space analyst, says this is all Kremlin propaganda, Putin intentionally fanning Russian nostalgia for Soviet space-age triumphs. In turning back the clock, says Yegorov, the Russian leader is trying to fuse a cult of victory in space with ongoing efforts to bring Ukraine back under Russian control. A giant banner in support of the war effort was even hung at the launch pad.

YEGOROV: (Through interpreter) It all creates a singular image. We're flying to the moon and the stars, just like we did in the Soviet Union. Now let's remake the Soviet Union back on Earth.

MAYNES: But for that narrative to hold, Luna 25 still has to make that moon landing and do it fast. India has an unmanned mission already orbiting the moon. That spacecraft is expected to attempt its landing on the moon's south pole around the same time as Russia's. It's a sign that even as the Kremlin embraces its Cold War legacy of competition with the West, new players have entered the space game. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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