A life-size prototype of the Phobos spacecraft. Credit: Anatoly Zak / RussianSpaceWeb.com

May 13, 2015 What's up with Russian planetary science?

Sen—For any space fan it is hard to believe that the nation which managed to take the first image of the far side of the Moon and delivered humanity the only glimpse of the Venusian surface no longer seems capable of exploring deep space. Yet, despite all the bravado of the current Kremlin leadership and billions of dollars spent by Moscow on space in the past decade, not a single Russian spacecraft has managed to leave the gravitational field of Earth to go to other planets or even the Moon. By now, later starters in the space program such as China, Japan and India have already outrun Russia in many aspects of planetary exploration and space-based astronomy. Moreover, if this trend continues, new comers into the 'space club' with tiny space budgets, such as South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, could eclipse the fatherland of Lunniks and Lunokhods in the field of planetary science.

So, what went wrong and what's up with Russian space science? How did the Russian deep-space exploration program fall so low and does it have any chance to recover?

It became a cliché when describing the root cause of many recent troubles of the Russian space program to blame the financial collapse of the 1990s. However, it is important to understand: When it comes to Russian space science, the money is not the problem, or to be completely fair, is not the main problem! No question, the Soviet space program was at risk of a complete collapse along with the rest of the USSR. The financial situation of leading institutions of Russian space science, such as Moscow-based Space Research Institute (IKI) was very, very difficult. However, the IKI and the main developer of scientific spacecraft in Russia—NPO Lavochkin—entered the 1990s still riding a wave of enthusiasm generated by a hugely successful Vega project. Developed with the unprecedented cooperation of Western scientists, the Soviet-led Vega spacecraft visited Venus and flew by Halley's Comet in mid-1980s, delivering a wealth of data and inspiring a new generation of space enthusiasts, including the author of this blog.

Many western scientists, who for the first time became engaged in such a program, loved to work with the Soviets. Their Russian colleagues boasted stable budgets endorsed by Decrees of the Soviet of Ministers and by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and almost always managed to stick to their development schedules. Soviet scientists tended to work informally and without much paperwork and, during meetings in Moscow, treated their foreign guests with trips to the magnificent Bolshoi Theater and with noisy parties featuring vodka and caviar. Obviously, scientists at IKI kept their foreign partners mostly insulated from internal political battles and technical problems, paranoid secrecy and the byzantine structure at NPO Lavochkin, who, (we can now say), was also assembling the USSR's top-secret military satellites under the same roof as planetary probes.

These problems showed their ugly head to the world during the next big Soviet-led project. A pair of Phobos spacecraft was launched in 1988 to explore Mars and its mysterious moons. However one probe was lost mid-way to the Red Planet, due to a human error, while another broke down right before its rendezvous with Phobos, intended to be the highlight of the mission. While top managers at NPO Lavochkin tried to blame internal factors, the insiders at IKI knew that poor quality control was to blame. However in the centralized Soviet system, NPO Lavochkin ran the show, while scientists had little say, not to mention they had nowhere else to go to build their one-of-a-kind planetary spacecraft. As one anonymous character from Anton Chekhov's timeless Complaints' Book said unceremoniously: "Eat what they give you!"

Despite the Phobos fiasco, a new big international coalition came together for yet another Soviet-led mission to Mars, which became Russian-led with the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991. Now, all the Soviet-style problems of Russian space science were greatly exacerbated by the financial crisis. Conceived as Mars-92, the cash-strapped project became Mars-94 and then Mars-96, as once-in-two-years launch windows to the Red Planet came and went. Breaking a long tradition of building at least a pair of flight-worthy copies of planetary probes, the Russian government could fund only a single vehicle for the Mars-96 mission. Working sometimes for months without pay with the key space infrastructure decaying around them, the Russian scientists succeeded in preparing the complex spacecraft for launch in November 1996.

According to most insiders familiar with the project, who later would not be shy about exposing some of the ills of Russian space science, Mars-96 was adequately tested and fully prepared for its challenging mission. However shortly after a Proton rocket had delivered the spacecraft into its initial orbit and project participants had already had a chance to have a shot of vodka to celebrate the launch, awful news came. The upper stage, which was supposed to send Mars-96 in the direction of Mars, misfired, leaving the priceless spacecraft in a short-lived orbit bound to an uncontrolled plunge into the Earth's atmosphere.

Read the next instalment here.