Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, has been beset with numerous setbacks in recent months. However, NASA says it's not worried, but other analysts aren't so sure.
Russian and American space authorities announced in early February that due to faulty test procedures, the next manned mission of the Russian Soyuz capsule bound for the International Space Station would be delayed by a month. It is now set to launch no earlier than May 15, while teams in both countries are continuing to work on the problem in more detail.
"This particular event is very unfortunate, but you know this is a complicated business and things happen," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station program manager, at a press conference when announcing the delay earlier this month. "To me, this is not indicative of some overarching problem at the Energia corporation," Russia's main space contractor.
However, Russia is the only country ferrying astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station and back since NASA retired its aging fleet of space shuttles last year - and that's put newfound pressure on Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
Russia's space agency has experienced a string of mishaps in recent months. The latest was the failure of its Phobos-Grunt probe. The satellite failed to leave earth orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Russia's space agency says foreign microchips and heavily charged space particles caused the probe to malfunction.
These latest findings have some analysts worrying about the reliability of Russia's space program.
Accusations of interference
The launch of the Phobos-Grunt probe from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe was meant to take Russia back to deep space after a decade's long absence.
To the embarrassment of Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, the more than $163 million (121 million euros) probe failed to leave Earth orbit, on its intended trajectory towards a moon of Mars, to retrieve soil samples. Instead, the satellite spiraled aimlessly, out of control, before its batteries ran out, crashing into the Pacific Ocean earlier this month. The probe was carrying tons of toxic fuel.
Some Russian experts blamed US radar for interfering with the probe's onboard computer system causing it to crash.
“There is information presented by our specialists, showing that our space stations often fail during the part of the flight invisible to and uncontrolled by Russia's space agency,” said Russian Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. “The idea has a right to exist and will definitely be studied. I hope it's not true, but if it is, certain conclusions will be drawn.”
But would Washington do something so sinister as to deliberately interfere with Russian spacecraft? Space expert Sergei Pekhterev addressed the issue earlier this month on state-run television.
“It's not worth it,” said Sergei Pekhterev, the COO of AltegroSky Group, and a space industry expert. “In order to make a satellite go down under artificial conditions, very complex work needs to be done. It's really hard to imagine that the US has spent billions of dollars to hit some Phobos-Grunt. I doubt it.”
Calls for cooperation
Despite the fact that high-level Russian officials have deflected responsibility away from their own failures, other analysts dismiss these unusual accusations.
“In every country you will find a couple of freaks who will tell you that it is the international conspiracy to make all the problems,” said Andrei Kortunov, an analyst with the New Eurasia Foundation. “If the US was in a position to shoot down a Russian satellite they wouldn't need a strategic weapons program to develop. It is something that doesn't exist. Those who are thinking in these terms are crazies.”
It just so happens that those crazies, as Kortunov calls them, are connected with the country's space program, experts who are advising officials as to why the satellite failed.
Earlier in the week, Roscosmos also blamed the Phobos-Grunt failure on heavily charged particles from outer space. The agency's head, Vladimir Popokvin says the particles interfered with the computer's memory. Popovkin also said that the initial investigation found that foreign parts also played a role in the satellite's demise.
“It's also clear that no country in the world can produce everything it needs,” Kortunov added. “We have to rely on each other we have to trust each other.”
Roscosmos set to get more funding
So do analysts and experts think that Russia's space program is going down hill? Recent failures include last summer's loss of a cargo vessel bound for the International Space Station. The cargo failed to leave earth orbit, crashing into Siberia, spilling toxic fumes into the earth.
Pekhterev noted that Russia doesn't have the financial support it used to and therefore mishaps keep occurring.
“During Soviet times, there was more funding to support the country's space program,” he said recently on state-run television. “Now, there are no funds to support these expensive stations which used to involve hundreds of scientists and crew.”
Even President Dmitry Medvedev has acknowledged that Russia's space program needs more funding and has promised an increase for the organization as part of his modernization effort. According to government figures, Roscosmos received more than $3 billion (2.2 billion euros) in 2011, that's nearly triple the amount it received in 2007.
But apparently that money isn't enough. Roscosmos has revealed that the next manned launch, using a Soyuz rocket, to the ISS has been delayed due to technical problems. Still, Kortunov, the New Eurasia Foundation analyst admits that yes, Russia has experienced setbacks, but that shouldn't be too worrisome.
“There were some issues, but this is the most reliable vehicle designed by man if you look at the number of launches compared to the track record of the shuttle,” he told DW.
Author: Jessica Golloher, Moscow
Editor: Cyrus Farivar
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