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Phobos-Grunt failure criticized

by RIA Novosti & The Moscow News at 16/01/2012 20:49

The failure of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe, which has crashed into the Pacific Ocean, was the disappointing completion of the first Russian interplanetary mission in 15 years.

The doomed unmanned expedition, when coupled with a total of six launch failures for 2011, is considered a particular blow to the reputation of the Russian space program by experts. The reputation of the space program is a sensitive issue, given that Russia currently provides the only space taxi delivering cosmonauts and supplies to the International Space Station.

New deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, has made several steely statements, promising order in the industry. “I am taking the investigation into the reasons for the Phobos-Grunt failure under personal control,” Rogozin wrote on his Facebook webpage, RIA Novosti reported.

As experts have pointed out, however, a thorough investigation of what went wrong with Phobos- Grunt is technically impossible. “The probe, which weighed two tons… exploded in Earth’s atmosphere,” said Igor Marinich, editor in chief of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki online magazine.

A version of events that includes possible sabotage, as voiced by Vladimir Popovkin, current head of Roscosmos, which oversaw the Phobos-Grunt project, is therefore impossible to prove or disprove.

Alexander Zhelaznyakov, a member of the Russian Tsiolkovsky Space Academy, told The Moscow News that in theory, strong and focused radio waves are technically able to damage a space probe’s electronics. But the level of cooperation and goodwill among the key space powers make speculations about such an unfriendly act useless, Zheleznyakov pointed out.

Those who deal with international space programs tend to be surprised by how friendly the atmosphere is in the industry. “I learned [during training in Star City, where cosmonauts prepare for spending time aboard the ISS] how close the Russian-American relationship is: American astronauts speak Russian far better than the American businesspeople I know in Russia,” Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist who took a full course of training in the Star City as a back-up cosmonaut, told The Moscow News last year.

“We are allies in space with Europe, the U.S. and China, and we shouldn’t be expecting any foul play from them,” Alexander Zheleznyakov said. Zheleznyakov suggested that closer attention must be paid to outdated technologies and to a lack of communication between the older generation and young scientists. He pointed out that Phobos-Grunt was made using ten-year-old technology and spare parts whose warranties were expired.

Late last year, a scandal broke out when a LiveJournal blogger, Lana Sator, sneaked into an Energomash rocket-building facility, where rocket boosters’ engines were tested. The pictures Sator took there showed outdated equipment at one of the space program’s key factories, which may make an even stronger case for reevaluating the Russian space industry than Phobos-Grunt’s well-publicized failure has done.

During a recent meeting with the just-appointed Dmitry Rogozin, PM Vladimir Putin said that the civil space program must get army– style quality control. Among other things, the military quality control requires a permanent presence of a controlling organization (similar to army purchase officers) at any given factory.

There is some debate as to where strict quality control alone will help the industry, which urgently needs a new influx of talented staff and updated manufacturing hardware. “We are talking not about a crisis, but about the consequences of long-term under-financing of the industry,” Zheleznyakov said.

The freeze on space program financing, ordered by Boris Yeltsin, has played a part in today’s failures, but according to Alexander Zhaleznyakov, Russian space scientists must also adopt more to the modern age. And Roscosmos – both when it comes to programs in Earth’s orbit and for solar system exploration – must act in line with national priorities, according to the expert.

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