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11 November 2011 By Jason Bush

It was supposed to mark Russia’s triumphant return to interplanetary exploration. But instead of setting course for Mars, the Phobos-Grunt probe threatens to crash back to Earth within days of take-off. The fiasco is a blow not just to Russia’s prestige, but also to its dreams of making commercial advantage of its vaunted space prowess.

The loss of the $170 million probe will be especially painful, because Russia is placing high hopes on its return to the cosmos. Prime minister Vladimir Putin is fond of pointing out that the space industry is a major business – its global revenues last year were some $275 billion. Russia, the country that produced Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, dreams of increasing its share of this lucrative market from its current 3 percent to at least 10 percent. In the last five years Putin has boosted the country’s annual space budget fivefold, to $5 billion.

But the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission will hardly reassure potential partners that Russia has the “Right Stuff” to compete with the likes of NASA. What makes the setback even more embarrassing is that it is just the latest in a succession of spectacular disasters for the Russian space programme. For all the attempts to reinvigorate it, Russia’s much-vaunted space industry is a shadow of its former self.

Russian officials admit that years of chronic underfunding have taken a serious toll on both technology and human resources, compounded by bad management and bureaucratic incompetence. Similar problems are also to blame for the regular succession of disasters, from plane crashes to exploding power plants, which hint at a more general decay.

One conclusion is that instead of trying to relive past glories, Russia needs to scale back its ambitions. It may be that the future of its space industry is not as a proud independent player, but as a junior auxiliary to Western players – an approach Russia has grudgingly accepted in sectors such as the car industry. But Putin is likely to respond to the costly fiascos by throwing even more money at the problems. Much like the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt, this may also go up in smoke.

 

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