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Vladimir Putin says Russia to launch first manned space flight from its soil in 2018

President Vladimir Putin told astronauts in orbit on Friday that Russia will send up the first manned flights from its own soil in 2018, using a new launch pad he said will help the once-pioneering space power explore deep space and the moon.

Speaking by video link with the International Space Station's crew from the building site, Putin said it will be open to use by the United States and Europe - playing up cooperation on the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 flight, which set off the Cold War space race.

But with the image of a fiery rocket launch as a backdrop, Putin also said he wants the Vostochny Cosmodrome to help Russia catch up with other powers in exploring beyond Earth's orbit.

"We are lagging behind the world in some areas," Putin said on a tour of the future launch site in eastern Siberia near the border with China. "We've developed a noticeable gap from the leading space powers in the technologies of so-called deep space exploration."

Russia wants Vostochny, where it hopes to exploit a new generation of rockets carrying heavier payloads, to rival its current launch 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 Baikonur 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 comes at Russia's expense.

Congratulating astronauts on what is known in Russia as Space Exploration Day, Putin said: "These are not just any greetings, these are greetings from the construction site of our future."

He said the first launch from Vostochny will be in 2015 and the first manned flight in 2018. The site, near Russia's Pacific Coast, was chosen to allow cosmonauts to splash down on water after their mission.

"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," he said.

Reuters