Just in case you hadn’t heard, Phobos-Grunt crashed to Earth (probably in the South Pacific) last Sunday, January 16th. All of the attempts to save the vehicle over the last two months were futile and a very expensive mission, carrying the hopes of the Russian planetary science program, was lost.
This really is a huge loss for the Russian program and it’s hard to understate the significance of the tough time they’ve had over the last 18 months. It will be interesting to see what the investigation turns up – if anything is publicized. As this graphic shows there has not been a successful mission to Mars from Russia since 1988 (but the ’90s weren’t good to any Mars programs). In fact, both Mars missions since the break up of the USSR have failed (Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt). They have some serious work to do to rebuild their name as leaders in space science.
This is an important topic for those of us in the US to keep in mind because of the important ties between our programs. The obvious is that RSA owns half of the ISS and currently flies all ISS partner astronauts on their Soyuz rockets. In addition, ESA and NASA have been in talks to include RSA on future projects due to funding problems. In particular, RSA has been asked to provide a launch vehicle for the ExoMars mission.
With that in mind, I would expect that critical eyes will be watching even more eagerly as the world of NewSpace tries to come into its own during 2012. With the Russian programs not looking very strong, the need for a redundant man-rated launcher is greater than ever. Fortunately, so far the manned program in Russia has not shown any signs of serious problems, save the one technical hiccup that caused the loss of Progress resupply vessel 44. I personally hope that the string of failures they have had will not creep into the manned program, leading to bad morale and an error chain that may lead to an accident. I have confidence in the technical professionals “in the trenches” in Russia, but the current situation is unsteady at best.
In the meantime, things look on track for the Progress 45 undocking from ISS next Monday and then Progress 46 launch and docking later in the week (here’s a NASA launch schedule). I’ll be starting a week of shifts in the ISS control room tonight and will get the privilege of helping to plan for those events.
Spaceflight is hard.