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Missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers might not have been possible without pioneering work on Mars rovers carried out even while the Soviet Union collapsed. (credit: NASA)

Russia, revolutions, and the Red Planet


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The current Arab countries’ revolution reminds me of the unraveling of the Soviet Union. Despite countless words, studies, speculation, and official and unofficial intelligence, they caught the world body politic by surprise, not just by their occurrence, but also their speed. I was, in a minor way, a witness to the Soviet dissolution. My connection was minor on the world scene, but it was a major step in space exploration.

I reflect on this now because it reminds me of how quickly things can change and how much geopolitical events shape space exploration. In 1988 our advocacy for human Mars exploration had reached the level of a summit meeting between presidents of the US and the USSR. Now we can’t even add it to a PowerPoint presentation at any space agency.

As a result of the Kamchatka tests and later tests that The Planetary Society organized in Death Valley, Mars rover exploration became a key note of mission planning in the US and, eventually, in Europe.

Back then, our robotic advocacy focus was also on Mars. All through the 1980s the US had no plans for Mars exploration, and the American space science community was against rovers because they felt it took resources away from “serious” science instruments. The Soviets saw things differently: they were developing Marsokhods for surface exploration of Mars in the 1990s, and scientists from around the world (including the US) gravitated to Moscow to get a piece of the action. By becoming a public part of the exciting Soviet Mars activity, and helping make it more international, The Planetary Society hoped to stimulate American and European space agencies to do more. Ultimately, we succeeded when Sojourner, a microrover, was added to the US Pathfinder mission.

On August 18, 1991, Roger Bourke, Tom Heinshieimer, Harris M. (Bud) Schurmeier, and I boarded an Aeroflot flight in the Anchorage airport to fly to Khaborovsk in Siberia on our way to Petropavlosk-Kamchatka as a Planetary Society team to participate in Soviet Mars Rover testing. Ten minutes before the flight departed we learned by telephone from our wives that there was a coup underway in the Soviet Union and that a new government announced, “Gorbachev is ill.” “Ill” was a euphemism to say that they had placed him under house arrest at his dacha and they had taken over the government. We held a quick discussion as the flight attendant was closing the airplane door and decided to go. By the time we landed in Khaborovsk, all air traffic in Russia had been closed, and the radios and television were playing martial music and speeches from politicians and military leaders extolling the “return of law and order.” With no flights and no hotels, we spent the night in the Khaborovsk airport. But because we were VIPs(!), they cleared out one of the waiting rooms to allow us to sleep on the benches in privacy!

While our Soviet colleagues negotiated this high-level treatment, we took a car ride down to the Amur River to gaze at China, wondering if we would have to leave the country by swimming across the Amur.

Flights resumed the next day, and we made it to Petropavlosk-Kamchatka. There we stopped at a beach on the Pacific Ocean and similarly gazed toward Alaska, wondering how this could be our route out of the Soviet Union. (This was before Sarah Palin had explained how close we really were.)

By the time we flew home 14 days later, the Soviet flags had been replaced by Russian flags. Communism hadn’t quite ended (that took a few more months), but the coup was over, and its leaders in jail. Our own reassurance came even before the coup was officially over. Our host, Alexander Kermurdjan—a hero of the Leningrad siege in World War II and leader of Russian tank and Lunakhod development—watched the Moscow coup leaders on television and derisively pronounced them “dilettantes,” even while they asserted they ruled the country. He was right.

Like the faded maritime powers of the 16th century, Russia is headed to be in space what Portugal and Holland became on the oceans: forgotten explorers. There is a lesson for the US here: Things can change quickly.

He also was right about Mars rovers. As a result of the Kamchatka tests and later tests that The Planetary Society organized in Death Valley, Mars rover exploration became a key note of mission planning in the US and, eventually, in Europe. The Russian Marsokhod influenced engineers at NASA and JPL (NASA ultimately bought one for testing in Hawaii) as well as American program leaders like Dan Goldin, Wes Huntress, and Charles Elachi, as they constructed US Mars exploration plans. Their reaction to a 1993 Mars orbiter failure was to plan a more aggressive program with two missions every two years with orbiters, landers, and rovers, and to seek a “Mars Together” plan with Russia.

The Soviet Union ended, and Russia dropped out of space exploration. It’s now been 20 years and the only planetary mission firmly on their agenda is Phobos Sample Return—a follow-on to their 1988(!) mission, which never quite made it down on to Phobos. That mission had some small success, but the last fully successful Russian deep space mission was the 1985–6 Venus-Halley Comet (VEGA) mission. They have discussed a lunar lander mission, but its projected launch date slips one to two years every year (although there is a cooperative developing plan with India for a lunar mission in 2013.) Their space astronomy program has similarly withered, and we still don’t know if their Radioastron mission, several decades in development, will really launch.

The Russian human program has been similarly disappointing. Despite obvious capability demonstrated by continuing launches and servicing of the International Space Station, and despite occasional speeches by the head of one company or the other, there is no hint of doing anything in human space flight for themselves—only for paying external customers. Even the two robotic planetary missions on the books are bolstered by external customers: China hitching a ride to Mars on the Phobos mission and India providing support for the lunar mission. In my view, Russia is just a contractor—which, ironically, is one reason I regard them as a reliable source for US space transportation to low Earth orbit.

My friends in Russia complain that their younger generation doesn’t even know that they were the first in space with both robots and humans. Like the faded maritime powers of the 16th century, Russia is headed to be in space what Portugal and Holland became on the oceans: forgotten explorers. There is a lesson for the US here: Things can change quickly.


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ISPCS 2014