A failed lunar mission dents Russian pride and reflects deeper problems with Moscow’s space industry

Aug 22, 2023, 9:08 AM

FILE - In this image made from video released by Roscosmos State Space Corporation, the Soyuz-2.1b ...

FILE - In this image made from video released by Roscosmos State Space Corporation, the Soyuz-2.1b rocket with the moon lander Luna-25 automatic station takes off from a launch pad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. The failure of the robotic Luna-25 probe, which crashed onto the surface of the moon over the weekend, reflects the endemic problems that have dogged the Russian space industry since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. (Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP, File)

(Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP, File)

An ambitious but failed attempt by Russia to return to the moon after nearly half a century has exposed the massive challenges faced by Moscow’s once-proud space program.

The destruction of the robotic Luna-25 probe, which crashed onto the surface of the moon over the weekend, reflects the endemic problems that have dogged the Russian space industry since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Those include the loss of key technologies in the post-Soviet industrial meltdown, the bruising impact of recent Western sanctions, a huge brain drain and widespread corruption.

Yuri Borisov, the head of the state-controlled space corporation Roscosmos, attributed the failure to the lack of expertise due to the long break in lunar research that followed the last Soviet mission to the moon in 1976.

“The priceless experience that our predecessors earned in the 1960-70s was effectively lost,” Borisov said. “The link between generations has been cut.”

While the USSR lost the race to the United States to land humans on the moon, the Soviet lunar program had more than a dozen successful pioneering robotic missions, some of which featured lunar rovers and brought soil samples back to Earth. The proud Soviet space history includes launching the first satellite in space in 1957 and the first human in space in 1961.

Mikhail Marov, a 90-year-old scientist who played a prominent role in planning the earlier lunar missions and worked on the Luna-25 project, was hospitalized after its failure.

“It was very hard. It’s the work of all my life,” Marov said in remarks carried by Russian media. “For me, it was the last chance to see the revival of our lunar program.”

Borisov said the spacecraft’s thruster fired for 127 seconds instead of the planned 84 seconds, causing it to crash, and a government commission will investigate the glitch.

Natan Eismont, a leading researcher with the Moscow-based Institute for Space Research, told the state RIA Novosti agency said that signs of equipment problems had appeared even before the crash, but space officials still gave the go for landing.

Vitaly Egorov, a popular Russian space blogger, noted that Roscosmos may have neglected the warnings in a rush to be the first to land on the lunar south pole ahead of an Indian spacecraft that has been orbiting the moon ahead of a planned landing.

“It looks like things weren’t going according to plan, but they decided not to change the schedule to prevent the Indians from coming first,” he said.

The lunar south pole is of particular interest to scientists, who believe the permanently shadowed polar craters may contain frozen water in the rocks that future explorers could transform into air and rocket fuel.

A major factor exacerbating Russia’s space woes that could have played a role in the Luna-25 failure has been the Western sanctions on Moscow over its war in Ukraine. Those penalties have blocked imports of microchips and other key Western components and restricted scientific exchanges.

While working on the Luna-25 project, Roscosmos partnered with the European Space Agency that was to provide a camera to facilitate the landing. The ESA halted the partnership soon after the February 2022 invasion and requested Roscosmos to remove its camera from the spacecraft.

Years earlier, Russia hoped to buy the main navigation device for the lunar mission from Airbus, but couldn’t due to restrictions blocking the technology transfer. In the end, it developed its own equipment that delayed the project and weighed twice as much, reducing the scientific payload for the spacecraft that weighed 1,750 kilograms (over 3,800 pounds).

Many industry experts note that even before the latest Western sanctions, the use of substandard components led to the collapse of an ambitious mission to send a probe to Mars’ moon Phobos in 2011. The spacecraft’s thrusters failed to send it on a path toward Mars and it burned in the Earth’s atmosphere — a problem that investigators attributed to using cheap commercial microchips that were unfit for the harsh conditions in space.

Some observers speculated that using the cheap components could have stemmed from a scheme to embezzle government funds, rather than importing the specialized equipment for the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which was designed by the NPO Lavochkin, the same company that developed Luna-25.

NPO Lavochkin designed fighter planes during World War II and was the main developer of Soviet robotic missions to the moon, Venus and Mars. Several top Lavochkin managers have been arrested on charges of abusing their office in recent years.

Following the Phobos failure, space officials talked about conducting a thorough revision of the lunar spacecraft design to avoid using similar substandard components. It’s unclear whether such work ever happened.

Russian state television had hailed Luna-25 as the country’s triumphant entry into a new moon race, but since the crash, the broadcasters have tried to play down the loss of the spacecraft. Some argued the mission wasn’t a complete failure because it sent back pictures of the lunar surface from orbit and other data.

Borisov tried to stay optimistic, arguing it achieved some important results.

He insisted that taking part in lunar research “not only means prestige or achieving geopolitical goals, it is necessary to ensure defense capability and technological sovereignty.”

“I hope that the next missions … will be successful,” Borisov said, adding that Roscosmos will intensify work on future moon missions, the next of which is planned for 2027.

“Under no circumstances we should interrupt our lunar program. It would be an utterly wrong decision,” he said.

Amid the finger-pointing, some argued the failure could cost Borisov his job. Others predicted he probably would avoid the dismissal, noting President Vladimir Putin’s record of avoiding quick ousters of officials in response to incidents.

Borisov, who previously served as a deputy prime minister in charge of arms industries, became Roscosmos chief a year ago, succeeding Dmitry Rogozin, who was widely blamed for some earlier space mishaps. Rogozin, who has joined the fighting in Ukraine as a volunteer, has not commented on the failed Luna-25 mission.

Under Rogozin, Roscosmos suffered a series of failed satellite launches. Combined with the growing role of private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, those failures have cost Russia its once-sizable niche in the lucrative global space launch market.

Rogozin was widely criticized for failing to root out endemic graft, including funds embezzled during the construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East, which was used to launch the latest moon mission.

Some commentators said the Luna-25 crash dented Russian prestige and raised new doubts about its technological prowess following military blunders in Ukraine.

“The consequences of the Luna-25 catastrophe are enormous,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov said.

“It raises doubts about Russia’s claims of a great power status in the eyes of the global community. Many would decide that Russia can’t fulfill its ambitions either in Ukraine or on the moon because it lives not by its modest current capability but rather fantasies about its great past,” he said. “People as well as countries want to side with the strong who win, not the weak who keep making excuses about their defeats.”

National News

Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji eats bamboo in his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, ...

Associated Press

Panda Diplomacy: The departure of DC’s beloved pandas may signal a wider Chinese pullback

WASHINGTON (AP) — Wearing a “I Love Pandas” t-shirt and clutching a panda-covered diary, Kelsey Lambert bubbled with excitement as she glimpsed the real thing. She and her mother, Alison, had made a special trip from San Antonio, Texas, just to watch the National Zoo’s furry rock stars casually munching bamboo and rolling around on […]

6 hours ago

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by F...

Associated Press

DeSantis said he would support a 15-week abortion ban, after avoiding a direct answer for months

When Ron DeSantis seemed to say during last week’s Republican presidential debate that he would support a federal ban on abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy, some anti-abortion activists called it the news they had been waiting months to hear. The president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion advocacy group, issued a […]

6 hours ago

FILE - This booking photo provided by the Florida Department of Corrections shows Michael Duane Zac...

Associated Press

Florida man who murdered women he met in bars set to die by lethal injection

STARKE, Fla. (AP) — A man is scheduled to die by lethal injection over 25 years after he killed women het met in north Florida bars during a dayslong spate of crimes. Michael Zack III is set to die at 6 p.m. Tuesday for the murder of Ravonne Smith, a bar employee he befriended and […]

6 hours ago

FILE - President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden leaves after a court appearance, July 26, 2023, in Wi...

Associated Press

Hunter Biden returns to court in Delaware and is expected to plead not guilty to gun charges

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Hunter Biden is due back in a Delaware courtroom Tuesday, where he’s expected to plead not guilty to federal firearms charges that emerged after his earlier deal collapsed. The president’s son is facing charges that he lied about his drug use in October 2018 on a form to buy a gun […]

6 hours ago

FILE - The interior of the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is seen...

Associated Press

Fuller picture emerges of the 13 federal executions at the end of Trump’s presidency

CHICAGO (AP) — A day before the federal government executed a Texas man for the killing of an Iowa couple when he was 18, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz pleaded with then-President Donald Trump — a former client — to call the execution off. During a Dec. 9, 2020, call to the White House, Dershowitz told […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

US Rep. Henry Cuellar carjacked by three armed attackers about a mile from Capitol

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, was carjacked Monday night by three armed attackers, his office said. Cuellar’s chief of staff Jacob Hochberg released a statement saying: “As Congressman Cuellar was parking his car this evening, 3 armed assailants approached the Congressman and stole his vehicle. Luckily, he was not harmed and is […]

7 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

A failed lunar mission dents Russian pride and reflects deeper problems with Moscow’s space industry