Russian space program slipping out of orbit Crash of Mars probe tops troubled, post-Soviet list

U.S. help may be sought

November 19, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The crash Sunday of Russia's rocket to Mars was the latest sign of the humiliation that's become routine for this country's space program.

A Burran space shuttle, part of a fleet that never got the funding to fly, is now an attraction for children at Gorky Park. Cosmonauts aboard the old Mir space station routinely must wait for the homeland to afford a flight home, and just a few weeks ago they had to suffer the stench of an overflowing sewage system.

But Sunday's failure of the ambitious Russian Mars 96 mission was the most serious blow to the Russian space program since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russian scientists watched helplessly early Sunday morning as their uninsured, $300 million spacecraft disappeared from control screens when its fourth-stage booster did not fire. After failing to break out of the Earth's orbit, the 6-ton probe, the largest interplanetary craft ever launched, was doomed.

The spacecraft's crash into the Pacific, between Chile and Easter Island, was potentially disastrous for a program reliant on the international confidence that attracts lucrative commercial contracts.

"It has come as a terrible blow for all of us," Yuri Milov, a deputy head of the Russian Space Agency, said in Moscow. "We were pinning so many hopes on that unique mission."

At a news conference in Moscow yesterday, Milov and other scientists from the project said they still don't know why the fourth booster engine didn't fire.

The Russian space officials said they believe Mars 96 fell into the South Pacific in two parts. Alan Hodges, director general of Emergency Management Australia, told the Associated Press that the spacecraft crashed at 8: 34 p.m. Sunday.

Fragments of the rocket crashed separately, but in the same area and exactly 24 hours later, the Russians said.

Though parts of the spacecraft had been designed to withstand entry into the Martian atmosphere, the U.S. Space Command said it could not confirm whether any pieces survived the fiery re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere.

Remaining competitive

In a nation with world-class scientists who go unpaid, drive taxicabs or even kill themselves, as in the case last month of a top nuclear researcher despondent over his finances, space technology is one the few areas where Russia remains competitive.

So, aside from the $300 million loss, the crash of Mars 96 darkens the prospects for the Russian space industry.

With public funding dwindling, the federal government has decided that the space program will have to rely more on the West.

Though the spacecraft, which would have landed on Mars in September 1997, was built completely with Russian government funds, half of the total cost of the project was borne by 22 other countries that had experiments riding on the spacecraft.

"One could argue that this was a fluke, and not at all that big a setback. There are lots of space failures all the time -- a $100 million Indonesian satellite just recently," said Glenn Schweitzer, head of the National Research Council's Eurasian department and a participant in the search for radioactive debris from a Soviet spacecraft that fell in Canada in 1978.

"But this was a failure up there [over Earth] and it had plutonium. If this didn't have plutonium no one would pay any attention."

There were 7 ounces of deadly plutonium in the batteries of landing vehicles designed to withstand the intense heat of re-entry and the impact of a crash.

One worst-case scenario had the release of a small radioactive cloud if the crash occurred on land. Chilean officials now fear that the plutonium may have been released in lucrative fishing areas and are demanding more information about the spacecraft.

Once a step ahead of U.S.

It was 39 years ago this month that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and with it the space race between the United States and Soviet Union.

The Soviets consistently were one step ahead of the United States -- sometimes by just a matter of weeks -- by launching the first animal in space, the first man in space, the first lunar fly-by, the first Venus fly-by, the first Mars fly-by, the first woman in space, the first spacewalk and the first unmanned soft lunar landing.

Space was as much a scientific challenge as it was a patriotic undertaking and geopolitical tool for both countries. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, remains as much an icon in democratic Russia as he was a hero during the Communist era.

"Russians are still quite proud of the space program," said pollster Vladimir Andreenkov. They rank space exploration "of average importance" to the nation even though economic concerns are consistently the biggest worry.

"It seems that Russians' understanding of themselves as taxpayers doesn't yet link their own economic problems with programs [like the Russian space program]," he said.

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