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As Curiosity Explores Mars, Russia's Spacemen Take Stock
Mars Science Laboratory

by Konstantin Bogdanov RIA Novosti commentator

Moscow (RIA Novosti) Aug 09, 2012 The United States has successfully launched its fourth surface rover to Mars in 16 years. Russia, on the other hand, recently endured the painful failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and has little to brag about in terms of Red Planet exploration. It seems as though success is no longer a requirement: The domestic space industry now must focus on the gradual recovery of the national space program's infrastructure rather than the implementation of ambitious outer space exploration projects.

After successful launches of three Mars rovers - the small Sojourner in 1996-1997, the full-size Spirit in 2004-2010 and the Opportunity that has evaluated Mars since 2004 - NASA continues to conduct Martian experiments.

The Curiosity rover has successfully landed in a way that has never been tried before: It was lowered to the Martian surface using cables running from a sky crane. The landing was carried out in an automatic mode due to a 14-minute delay in communication signals between Earth and Mars.

Testing such radical innovations in complex projects such as flights to Mars says a lot not only about the daring of the technical engineering, but also about the high level of technological experience accumulated over many years.

The American Martian program is on the rise. It started back in the 1960s with the Mariner automated stations and continued in the 1970s with the Vikings. In the 1990s, it was changed into a long-term research program using mobile rovers.

The Soviet space program has achieved notable successes in the study of Venus, but has suffered defeat after defeat in its Mars exploration program. This unseemly tradition has remained unchanged since 1991.

Losers flock together
Russia missed its move in the current Mars exploration game: The failure of the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt was laboriously rerun by the press and will haunt the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) for quite a while. This was the second Russian attempt to send a major expedition to Mars in 15 years: In 1996, the Mars-96 crashed into the Pacific Ocean at the start of the mission thus throwing Russian Mars research programs back many years.

At the moment, even though it agrees that another Phobos-Grunt will inevitably have to be launched to Mars, the Russian Space Agency has adopted a more humble stance now that it has an interesting opportunity to establishing foreign cooperation in Mars exploration.

This opportunity is the result of the third Martian project being pursued by the European Space Agency (ESA). Its hapless ExoMars project has a long history, but essentially the Europeans would like to piggyback onto the efforts of a major space agency because they have no illusions about their ability to pull off a complex multi-componential mission on their own.

Initially, the idea was to use a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and its Frigate boosters to launch a station. Later, they talked about using an American Atlas booster to launch their ExoMars project equipment.

Later, NASA, emboldened by successful Martian missions Spirit and Opportunity, as well as good progress in preparing for Curiosity, walked away from the ESA project. In addition, the U.S. MAX-C rover that was supposed to fly to Mars as part of the ExoMars program came under budget cuts. There wasn't much left for the Americans in this mission.

Two Martian losers have fallen together again: ExoMars will receive a large package of scientific equipment from Russia and will be launched with Russian Proton boosters. This will be beneficial for Europe. Russia's conservative approach will allow it, on the one hand, to gain some time to come up with new solutions for deep space exploration equipment and, on the other hand, will not leave much downtime for researchers from the Academy of Sciences who will see their equipment go to Mars on a European platform.

Open for inventory
This third approach to a Martian project may be decisive for Russia (among other decisions to revaluate its values) from the perspective of formulating a new national policy for space exploration. It seems obvious that the current strategy, based on the extensive (it's tempting to say "predatory") use of the Soviet legacy (technology, human resources, infrastructure and solutions) has run into a brick wall.

A rash of partially and entirely unsuccessful launches during the Year of Space in 2010-2011 has exposed this problem in its entirety: the industry is bound for a system-wide crisis. Insisting on being the No. 1 space power means ditching the remnants of the traditional national space program in pursuit of unattainably ambitious goals.

The industry is reminiscent of an out-of-shape athlete who is suddenly put on a ragtag training schedule in order to participate in an unexpected contest. It's a hit or miss proposition, but who knows, the guy could win.

However the events of 2010 and 2011 have shown that successful results can no longer be obtained without proper preparation. You need to take inventory of your engineering staff, put forth realistic goals and then oversee the performance.

In this sense, Russia's involvement in ExoMars is a good sign if only because there was no one to utter the fateful words that "we refuse to explore outer space until we perfect our own solutions using alternative equipment, such as lunar rovers." Many were expecting these words to come from the Federal Space Agency after the Phobos-Grunt mission failed.

Russia has not abandoned its outer space exploration program, but has de facto acknowledged its inability to conduct this research alone while focusing on urgent tasks, such as introducing the new Angara booster, a new spaceship based on the prospective manned transport system, the new infrastructure (spaceport Vostochny) and a newly assembled staff. And, of course, the program needs new platforms for long-distance spacecraft, to be sure.

When all this starts coming together at least at the level of the classic Soviet space exploration program of 1991 with its Mir station, Soyuz spacecraft and working launch systems - then and only then can one provide a meaningful answer to the question of whether the domestic space industry is capable of pulling off anything along the lines of a standard U.S. mission to Mars.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Source: RIA Novosti


Related Links
Russia missed its move in the current Mars exploration game: The failure of the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt was laboriously rerun by the press and will haunt the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) for quite a while. This was the second Russian attempt to send a major expedition to Mars in 15 years: In 1996, the Mars-96 crashed into the Pacific Ocean at the start of the mission thus throwing Russian Mars research programs back many years. Station and More at Roscosmos
S.P. Korolev RSC Energia
Russian Space News

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