Russia sets its sights on the moon - again

Russia is beginning a new series of missions to the moon – likely an effort to overcome a slew of space setbacks in recent years by setting its sights on more fail-proof endeavors.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP/File
In this file photo from last December, the Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz TMA-07M space ship blasts off from the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. The Russian Space Agency says it will send a spacecraft to the moon in 2015 from a new launch pad in the country's Far East. Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said on Tuesday, the moon-bound spacecraft would be launched from Russia’s new Vostochny cosmodrome.

Nearly 40 years after abandoning its lunar exploration program, Russia says it's preparing to shoot for the moon again.

The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced this week that it will send a series of at least four robot probe missions to the moon in 2015, to be followed by a manned mission no later than 2030. All of this activity will be launched from a new $1 billion space center, Vostochny Kosmodrome, which is  under construction in the Amur region of Russia's far east.

Some experts insist that the plans are serious, and that they represent part of a concerted Russian effort to overcome a string of space setbacks in recent years, which seemed to hit so consistently that at one point Russian space officials blamed them on foreign sabotage.

The mishaps included a chain of crashes involving Russia's space workhorse, the Proton rocket booster. Moscow's plan to build a satellite-based global positioning system to rival the American GPS network ran into repeated problems, including the loss of several critical satellite payloads.

The most galling was the complete loss of the ambitious Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, which had been designed to bring back rock and soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos. The probe's engines stalled in Earth's orbit, and despite weeks of frantic efforts by ground controllers, it crashed into the Pacific Ocean a year ago.

"We were so depressed after what happened to Phobos-Grunt, that the decision was made to turn to more simple and readily accessible projects. The moon is a step to all the rest," says Igor Lisov, columnist with the Russian space journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki. "The timing is reasonable, the plan is logical, and there's clear understanding about what to do and when to do it," he says. "It's a matter of state interest."

The first flight, slated for 2015, will see a 1.2 ton lunar lander called Luna-Glob (Moon Globe) deposited on the moon's surface to search for water, take soil samples, and beam back its findings to Earth.

"We will begin our exploration of the moon from there," Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Russian journalists yesterday.

Further missions, including three satellite observatories and two lunar landers, will target the moon's north and south poles, where signs of water have been noted, with the ultimate aim of establishing a fully robotic Russian lunar base, Mr. Popovkin said.

Roskosmos has also opened a $300,000 tender to develop a design for a heavy rocket that would be capable of powering a manned mission to the moon by 2030. Popovkin said the winning design will be selected within a few months.

He added that the new rocket system, capable of supporting manned spacecraft, should be ready by 2020.

But some experts argue that the new plans are just another symptom of the organizational disarray and technical ineptness that has overtaken the once mighty Soviet space program and, despite dramatically increased funding in recent years, few of the schemes are likely to be seen through.

"I don't think these declarations of our officials should be taken too seriously. They seem to change regularly, and with no good reason," says Andrei Ionin, an expert with the government-linked Tsiolkovsky Space Academy in Moscow.

"There is no serious strategy of development. Instead we see space officials rushing about over the past couple of years without any positive results …  State financing is growing, so officials want to demonstrate that the money is not being allocated in vain. But this has all the earmarks of a pure PR campaign," he adds.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.