Not Ready for Takeoff; May 2012; Scientific American Magazine; by James E. Oberg; 1 Page(s)
Last November, Russia launched a widely anticipated mission to the Martian moon Phobos. The craft would gather samples from the moon’s surface to help determine if future space crews could obtain valuable supplies of oxygen there en route to Mars. For Russia, the mission was supposed to mark a “cavalry charge” that would redeem a quarter-century of interplanetary impotence. Instead it turned into a cosmic humiliation when the craft died shortly after takeoff and fell back to Earth.
Phobos was part of a series of recent disappointments for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Last August a Progress supply ship headed for the International Space Station crashed. Just a week before, an expensive, new-model communications satellite was lost because of a guidance coding error, and early in 2011 another military satellite was sent into an improper orbit, possibly for a similar reason. The overall track record of Russian space launches is still not significantly different from that of other spacefaring nations, and the country did successfully ferry two groups of astronauts to and from the International Space Station late last year. But it is the nature of the apparent causes of the accidents—often amazingly inept human errors—that seems most alarming. A recent Phobos accident report has confirmed some Western analysts’ worst fears.