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.
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."
The once-proud Russian space scientists feel their fall from grace even in personal terms. "When we meet our counterparts in Germany and the United States, we look so poor that I am ashamed,'" says Vyacheslav Filin, chief designer at the Energiya space company.
The apparent problem that derailed the Mars mission was the fourth and last booster rocket. The Proton lifted off flawlessly from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan Saturday night.
The engine in the fourth stage, and briefly the engine built into the Mars '96 payload, was to have given the final push for it to escape Earth's gravity. When the fourth stage failed to respond to the second of two internal commands to fire, and then failed to respond to ground commands, the satellite had nowhere to go but down. Splashdown near Easter Island came less than 36 hours after launch.
The loss "is a devastating blow to the Russians," says Sanjay Limaye, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin's Space Science and Engineering Center in Madison, Wis. "Russian scientists dedicated all their energy to this project," which originally was scheduled for launch in 1994.
Cash shortages delayed the mission. Planners then had to wait for the next "window" when the positions of Earth and Mars gave them their most efficient route to the Red Planet. The delays only aggravated the cost problems, Dr. Limaye says.
"The Russians have been trying to commercialize the Proton," Mr. Oberg says, which is a generally reliable booster. At $40 million a launch, the effort could generate badly needed hard currency. But communications satellites, the primary payload for commercial launch vehicles, are placed in geostationary orbit, roughly 22,000 miles high. That, he says, requires Protons to use the suspect fourth stage.
"This failure has to worry potential Western customers," he says. According to Oberg, the failure of Mars '96 is the latest manifestation of a malaise that he says permeates every facet of the Russian space effort, which "lacks funding, personnel, and public respect for its work."
For the first time, he says, Russia has no photographic spy satellites on orbit.
Earlier this year it sold for scrap its last space-tracking vessel. Usually positioned in the Gulf of Guinea during a launch, such a vessel might have been able to salvage the Mars '96 mission.
Space station on 'thin ice'
Even the manned program is skating on thin ice, Oberg says.
"They're having problems with water, oxygen, and carbon-dioxide removal systems on Mir. These are basic life support systems, not the treadmill or shower. They bang on them for a while, but the problems crop up again a couple of weeks later.
"Every time they dodge a bullet, they come away feeling a little more invincible. But they've been shaving things thinner and thinner. At some point, you no longer can coast, but collapse. No one knows how close they are," he says.