Phobos-Grunt spacecraft before launch. Image credit: Roscosmos

Jun 17, 2015 What's up with Russian planetary science, Part 2: The catastrophe

Sen—Those wondering today whether the Russian planetary exploration program had passed its lowest point should look no further than the catastrophe of the Mars-96 probe, which was left in a suicidal orbit by a launch vehicle failure.

November 1996 became a watershed moment for the Russian space scientists, forever dividing their hectic lives in the USSR (never mind the country had disintegrated five yeas earlier) and the near emptiness of the following two decades.

Their tragedy was truly multifaceted, starting with their foreign colleagues, who, having invested years of work and precious budgets into the ill-fated Mars-96, were no longer willing to risk further funds and time for the sake of cooperation with Russia. "Everything fails on your side, all the time," the leading Russian planetary scientist Slava Linkin remembers his European colleagues as saying.

To make matters worse, in the financial abyss of the 1990s, Russia could not allocate any significant money for another deep-space mission of its own. Had Mars-96 succeeded, the scientists at the Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow might have been able to weather the financial storm, keeping themselves busy with flight control over the mission and, later, analyzing a wealth of data from an array of experiments carried by the spacecraft. For a mission of this complexity, it would take several years to comb through all the data, after which the financial situation in Russia might have improved. However after the loss of Mars-96, suddenly, there was nothing major to do for years to come.

Not surprisingly, many members of the staff at IKI had little choice but to abandon the ship. Some dropped their space dreams altogether and went into banking, oil and other emerging industries. Others left Russia and a few lucky ones landed jobs at the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. Back in Moscow, as veteran scientists at IKI were retiring or dying there was no young talent to replace them.

Broke, isolated and demoralized, the surviving staff at IKI spent the 1990s arranging the installation of their relatively low-cost instruments on American and European probes. Some of these experiments brought remarkable results, but most laurels for the discoveries went to European and American scientists at the top of those projects. The Western press also largely ignored Russian contributions. More seriously, as the director of the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, GEOKhI, Erik Galimov discovered, leading Western journals had increasingly snubbed the few scientific papers that Russian scientists had been able to write.

In the meantime, ESA contracted with the Russian space agency to launch a number of European scientific probes, including Mars Express and Venus Express, Cluster satellites and the Integral space observatory with only minor Russian participation. Ironically, Russian rockets worked flawlessly when launching all these missions.

If all of this was not enough for Russian planetary science, there were bad politics to deal with at the Russian Academy of Sciences, another relic of the Soviet period, which still formulated the nation's space science program.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, some leaders at IKI tried to push for some radical solutions at the Academy. One idea was to start from scratch: namely to build a small, simple spacecraft on a shoe-string budget and launch it on a converted ballistic missile, which would have to be scrapped any way. Such a mission could orbit the Moon, an asteroid or Mars or even drop a simple lander on Phobos, one of the two small Martian moons. Such a project would enable the surviving team at IKI to retain its experience and maintain the ground control network necessary for more complex deep-space missions.

However, it also meant that Russia would have to admit the loss of its grand Soviet legacy and start at the back of the line into the Space Club, on a par with emerging space powers like China, Japan and India. Moreover, under this "smaller, cheaper, better" strategy, only very few experiments would get a chance to fly at a time, leaving little role for the bloated structure of the former Soviet Academy of Sciences, even if some of its divisions were now just empty shells existing merely on paper.

Instead, the Academy of Sciences approved an ambitious and expensive project inherited from the Soviet long-term strategy: to bring soil samples from Phobos back to Earth. For almost a decade, Phobos-Grunt (where "grunt" actually means "soil") was largely a paper project. However, as oil prices skyrocketed in mid-2000s, the Russian space budget had improved as well. Suddenly, there was a stampede inside the Russian scientific circles to get onboard Phobos-Grunt. The situation is understandable: for many scientific collectives it was a lifetime opportunity to send their instruments to Mars and to Phobos. It was truly "now or never!" Again, understandably, the leadership at IKI was either unable or unwilling to put the brakes on this feast. Even skeptical ESA reluctantly gave in, allocating relatively modest funding for several contributions by the European scientists.

Unfortunately, it was a race to get on the Titanic. By the time the development of the spacecraft went into full gear around 2007, NPO Lavochkin, which previously built all Soviet space probes, was a shadow of its former self. To make matters worse, like all the leadership at the Russian space agency, the company was now run by a former general, who was blamed for many fateful and incompetent decisions on the project. The general struck an agreement with China, which also decided to jump on the bandwagon with its own hitchhiker probe! It required a drastic redesign of an already overweight spacecraft, turning it into a 13-ton behemoth—the largest planetary vehicle ever built. In an effort to save weight, NPO Lavochkin dropped a bulky flight control computer, which was to be provided by the company's experienced sub-contractor. Instead, NPO Lavochkin banked on a start-up group, which sprung up on the ruins of the Soviet industry and promised to build a brand-new computer brain for the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Under the new scheme, NPO Lavochkin got to keep all the money allocated for the project in house!

However, faced with an unprecedented task, the inexperienced computer team fell hopelessly behind schedule. As the Russian puppet press went into overdrive with its pre-launch fanfares in 2009, Phobos-Grunt existed primarily in the imagination of the Roscosmos leadership. Amazingly, incompetent managers were apparently so oblivious to the situation that they continued making absurd demands to launch the spacecraft until a few weeks before a scheduled liftoff. Russian engineers familiar with the situation joked that launching a bucket full of nails would be more productive.

When the reality finally set in, the launch was cancelled and the head of NPO Lavochkin sacked, followed by a management shakeup at the agency's headquarters. To be fair, Phobos-Grunt was only one—even if the most glaring—fiasco in a row of failures, which would prompt three rounds of replacements at the helm of the Russian space program in the next four years, including the latest in January 2015. Unfortunately, Roscosmos was still under pressure to launch Phobos-Grunt in 2011. Two extra years did little to remedy the fundamental mismanagement permeating the project.

In the runup to the second launch attempt, insiders had a bleak view of the situation. However a few sober voices which were willing to publicly say that the "king was naked" had been drowned in the official fanfare.

Phobos-Grunt lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9, 2011, on the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket, which performed by the book. Following a normal separation from the rocket, the spacecraft briefly communicated with mission control but then failed, as its flight control computer apparently crashed and was unable to reboot.

To be continued.