Last November, Russia launched a widely anticipated mission to the Martian moon Phobos. The craft would gather samples from the moon’s surface to help determine if future space crews could obtain valuable supplies of oxygen there en route to Mars. For Russia, the mission was supposed to mark a “cavalry charge” that would redeem a quarter-century of interplanetary impotence. Instead it turned into a cosmic humiliation when the craft died shortly after takeoff and fell back to Earth.
Phobos was part of a series of recent disappointments for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Last August a Progress supply ship headed for the International Space Station crashed. Just a week before, an expensive, new-model communications satellite was lost because of a guidance coding error, and early in 2011 another military satellite was sent into an improper orbit, possibly for a similar reason. The overall track record of Russian space launches is still not significantly different from that of other spacefaring nations, and the country did successfully ferry two groups of astronauts to and from the International Space Station late last year. But it is the nature of the apparent causes of the accidents—often amazingly inept human errors—that seems most alarming. A recent Phobos accident report has confirmed some Western analysts’ worst fears.
The report, posted in Russian on the agency’s Web site, obliquely admitted that two fundamental design flaws were at fault. First, most of the more than 90,000 overwhelmingly foreign-built microchips were never screened for radiation hardness and were purchased with full knowledge that they were not “space qualified.” This supposedly allowed cosmic rays to knock out microchips inside the craft at exactly the wrong moment, which led the probe’s computer to default to safe mode and await remedial commands from Earth that never came because of yet another design flaw. (Most Western experts believe, however, that the mission failed as a result of software flaws.)
Russian space officials have admitted to problems in the past. Valery Ryumin, a former cosmonaut and now deputy chief designer of the firm that builds and operates Russia’s human space vehicles, told Echo of Moscow the day after the Progress crash that “of course, quality is worsening—we have to admit this.” He added that “checks have become far less thorough than back in old Soviet days.” The main reason for this trend is the loss of experienced workers and the industry’s inability to attract qualified replacements in sufficient numbers.
In hopes of preventing further accidents of this type, Russian space officials seem to be falling back on Soviet-era practices, calling for more controls, more committees, more discipline and, where justified, more punishments. Whether this will attract and motivate desperately needed recruits is questionable. And they won’t cure the problem at a time when Russian participation in American and European space missions is only set to increase.
This article was published in print as "Not Ready for Takeoff."