Morale Also Crashes As Russia's Mars Probe Sinks Into the Pacific
BOSTON AND MOSCOW
The future of the poverty-stricken Russian space program depends on how deeply the crash of Mars '96 has eroded international confidence in the onetime space giant.Skip to next paragraph
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Although the Russian program has grown increasingly threadbare - unable on occasion to bring cosmonauts down from its space station on schedule or even to evacuate human wastes from their living quarters - space has been one area where Russia has stayed an international leader. The workhorse Proton satellite-launch rockets still claim higher reliability than competitors from the United States or Europe.
But when the ambitious Russian Mars mission fell out of low-earth orbit and sank into the eastern Pacific Sunday, the morale of the Russian space program sustained serious damage.
The blow was devastating, says Roald Kremnev, director and chief designer of Russia's Babatkin Engineering Research Center and a senior member of the team that packaged the Mars '96 mission. "We feel very bad in front of the international scientific community, which put its labor and hopes in us and our project," Mr. Kremnev says.
How this failure affects the future of the Russian program depends on how much it damages the commercial competitiveness of Russia's launch vehicles, which have a respectable record of reliability.
"Everybody has failures," Kremnev says. The impact on the Russian program, he says, "depends on how much our foreign partners continue to have faith in us."
The disappointment of the Russians over the failure of their most ambitious launch since the demise of the Soviet Union was spread widely over the world space-science community.
When the remains of the six-ton Russian spacecraft plunged helplessly into the Pacific, a bit of Jonathan Barnes sank with them.
During the past two years, the University of Chicago junior has been part of a team building computer codes to analyze martian soil when the Russian craft landed on the Red Planet. Echoing the sentiments of colleagues from 20 countries who contributed time, money, and up to a decade of their careers to the Mars '96 project, Mr. Barnes says the mission's failure "is a big disappointment."
Russia's last-ditch effort?
But the most sobering effect, he acknowledges, is on Russia: "A lot of people threw everything they had left into the mission."
The loss of Mars '96 dashes Moscow's hopes for being a major player in planetary exploration, undermines its bid to build a commercial launch industry, and further erodes its shaky reputation as a reliable partner in high-tech space projects, such as the international space station, says James Oberg, an American aerospace engineer in Dickinson, Texas, and a noted authority on Russia's space efforts.
The country's cash-starved space program, he says, "is running on empty."
"We grew up thinking of Russia as a comparable partner to the United States in all aspects of space," adds John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "That won't be so in the future."