Are International Astronauts Playing Russian Rocket Roulette?

Posted January 6th, 2012 at 9:36 pm (UTC+0)
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After NASA ended it shuttle program last July, Russia offers the only taxi to space. U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit (L), Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (C) and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, members of the International Space Station crew, wave before the December 21, 2011 launch of the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft at Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. REUTERS: Dmitry Lovetsky

On January 15, Russia’s military space forces say, about 30 pieces of the Russia’s Mars probe are expected to crash back to earth, reminders of Russia’s latest botched rocket venture.

In 2011, Russia recorded six failed launches.

Last August 18, a Proton rocket put a telecommunications satellite in the wrong orbit, rendering it useless. A week later, an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship got four minutes into a voyage to the International Space Station when its Soyuz rocket failed, sending it crashing into Siberia.

Then in November, it was the turn of the $170-million Mars probe. It had been designed to travel to Mars, launch a Chinese Mars orbiter, scoop up Martian soil, and then return to Earth – a three year trip. But, shortly after a successful launch, the probe’s engines failed to kick in, dooming it to a low earth orbit and a fiery end this month.

Most recently, on December 23, a Russian-launched Soyuz rocket failed to put a Meridian communications satellite into orbit.

This failure prompted Vladimir Popovkin, administrator of Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency, to tell news agencies: “What happened today was a highly unpleasant situation. It confirms that the industry is in crisis and its weakest link is engine-building.”

The crisis in Russia’s space program is not just a problem for insurance companies and for Russia’s international image.

Russia now provides the only taxi service between earth and the International Space Station.

It’s a long way up. The International Space Station orbits between 330 and 410 kilometers above the earth. AP Photo: NASA

Last July, the Atlantis flew NASA’s final shuttle mission to the $100 billion orbiting laboratory. NASA will now rely on Russian Soyuz rockets until a private sector American shuttle service starts up, expected sometime around 2016.

But after the recent rocket failures, one can only wonder: Are Russian cosmonauts and their foreign colleagues playing rocket roulette?

Will we wake up one morning to the kind of disaster news that shook Americans in January 1986 when NASA’s Challenger shuttle blew up shortly after launch?

Moscow’s rocket failures coincide with two other recent reminders of Russian industrial carelessness: the sinking of a Russian oil rig and the burning of a nuclear submarine.
Defenders of Russia’s space program call it “the last bastion of quality control.” That was the phrase used in an excellent article on Dec. 22 by Will Englund in The Washington Post.
The headline, however, warns about the bigger picture: “In Russia, the lost generation of science.”

On Dec. 26, when the launch of a Proton-M rocket carrying a Dutch satellite was postponed for a month, defenders of Russian rockets noted that the launch would have been the 70th successful launch of a Proton since commercial service started in 1995.

Russia’s Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and the European Space Agency's Andre Kuipers launches on Dec. 21 to the International Space Station from Baikonur. Recent misfires of Russian rockets on unmanned missions has caused nervousness. REUTERS/NASA

Last August, after the crash of the unmanned Progress rocket carrying three tons of supplies to the space station, program defenders noted it was the first failure after 43 successful launches to the space station.

In the winter of 2009, Esther Dyson, the American tech venture capitalist, went through the Russian cosmonaut training program at Star City, outside of Moscow. At the time, I had lunch with Dyson and was impressed by her inside view of the system.

On Saturday, she emailed me her thoughts:
“”Having been on the inside, I would go up myself. What I saw of the Russian space program in many ways reflected the very best of the Soviet era – people genuinely motivated by a great enterprise, with a personal sense of shared mission. I’ll always remember when a seamstress came to adjust my [cloth] flight suit and happened to place a pin on – not in – my space suit. Everyone in the room gasped, as if she had lit a cigarette next to a fuel tank. Nonetheless, space travel is inherently risky, as NASA well knows. It has had its own failures. But as far as I know, space travel is now less risky than climbing Mount Everest… If anyone wants to cede their flight slot to me, I am ready.”

Indeed, as all Americans know, NASA has had its fatal errors.

Of 135 shuttle launches over 35 years, two – the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003 – ended in horrible failures, killing a total of 14 crew members.

Though overshadowed by failures of its unmanned rockets, Russia quietly carried out two successful manned launches to the International Space Station, one in November and one in December. With these launches, Russia’s Soyuz rockets safely carried a total of six astronauts to the station.

But, on the ground, there is skepticism of Roscosmos’ fix-it capability.

On Dec. 20, a Soyuz-2 rocket carrying a $500 million satellite misfired, sending pieces crashing near the Siberian city of Tobolsk. One piece, a five kilogram titanium ball crashed through the roof of the home of Andrei Krivorukov. Fortunately, Mr. Krivorukov had just stepped outside to get some firewood.

The Russian press descended on his cottage, amazed at the coincidence that the space junk had fallen on his house — located on Cosmonaut Street.

Mr. Krivorukov sized up the media frenzy, the official promises of a new roof, and the deepening Siberian winter. He decided to pay for the roof repairs himself.
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Four days after I posted Rocket Roulette, an explanation came from Roscosmos:

Russia’s space chief says failures may be sabotage
AP Photo MOSB104, MOSB105, MOSB103
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV=
Associated Press=
MOSCOW (AP) _ Some recent failures of Russian satellites may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, Russia’s space chief said in comments apparently aimed at the United States.
Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any specific country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview Tuesday in the daily Izvestia he said some Russian craft had suffered “unexplained” malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation’s tracking facilities.
Popovkin spoke when asked about the failure of the $170-million unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. Engineers in Russia and the European Space Agency have failed to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, and it is expected to fall back to Earth around Jan. 15.
Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin’s comments, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed that foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country’s satellites.
Popovkin said modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influences.
“I wouldn’t like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can’t be excluded,” he said.
The failed Phobos mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country’s space industries and raised the pressure on Popovkin. Space officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging work force.
Popovkin also said in 2013, Russia will launch three new communications satellites that will be able to retransmit signals from other Russian spacecraft as they fly over another hemisphere.
A retired Russian general alleged last November that the Phobos-Ground satellite might have been incapacitated by a powerful U.S. radar. Nikolai Rodionov, who previously was in charge of Russia’s early warning system, was quoted as saying that a powerful electromagnetic impulse generated by U.S. radar in Alaska might have affected the probe’s control system.
Popovkin said experts so far have failed to determine why the Phobos-Ground probe’s engines failed to fire, but admitted the program had suffered from funding shortages that led to some “risky technological solutions.”
The spacecraft was supposed to collect soil samples on Phobos and fly them back to Earth in one of the most challenging unmanned interplanetary missions ever. It was Russia’s first foray beyond the Earth orbit since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.
Scientists had hoped that studies of Phobos’ surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, while others think it’s a piece of debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

AP-WF-01-10-12 1650GMT

In the latest of series of high profile industrial accidents, a fire burned the rubber coating encasing a Russian nuclear submarine on Dec. 29, 2011, when it was in drydock. Here, firefighters spray water on the Yekaterinburg submarine near Murmansk. The fire injured seven crewmembers, a light toll compared to the 53 oil workers killed earlier in the month when their drilling platform sank in icy waters. AP Photo/Ru-RTR Russian state TV

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

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James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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