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An Embattled Russian Space Program Finds an Unexpected Root to its Problems Launch of Zenit-2SB rocket with AIS Phobos-Grunt By Andrew Roth Russia Profile 01/19/2012

Russia’s 1.4 billion ruble Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, burned up in the atmosphere off of South America last Sunday. The mission’s failure is the latest in a series of botched launches for the Russian space agency Roskosmos, yet agency officials presented a unique theory as to what happened: the probe may have been sabotaged by an American ionosphere research facility. U.S. and some Russian experts denied the accusations hotly, claiming that they gave more insight into Roskosmos’ woes than into what happened to the Mars probe.

After calls for an investigation into possible U.S. involvement in the failure of a Russian space probe, Roskosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin yesterday announced that the most likely cause behind the probe’s malfunction were mechanical errors due to poor construction. Yet the consecutive failure of 16 Russian missions to Mars, according to NASA, has once again brought crippling problems in Russia’s space program to light.

Roskosmos has been under siege for several years now. In the debacle that led up to the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight last year, the launch of a Soyuz rocket destined for the International Space Station was delayed several times, and in December 2010 a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying several satellites disintegrated in a fiery explosion over the Pacific Ocean. That disaster further delayed the initiation of Russia’s GLONASS satellite system, the Russian answer to the American GPS navigation system. Anatoly Perminov, who headed the space agency, rebuffed his colleagues’ calls on him to resign last April, saying he could only be fired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin axed him shortly thereafter, ending seven years of continuous leadership under Perminov.

Andrei Zheleznyakov, an academic at the Russian Academy of Space Exploration, said that Roskosmos was facing a “serious crisis” brought on through poor education and cutbacks stretching as far back as the 1990s. “Most likely the difficult 1990s have to be recalled, when the financing for the agency was very poor, and the departure of specialists from the sector, the decrease in levels of education, which specialists coming into the agency receive. Unfortunately, this leads to one failure after another,” he said.

Perminov’s replacement, Vladimir Popovkin, faced a similar embarrassment when Fobos-Grunt, Russia’s first Mars mission probe since 1995, failed to fire its secondary rocket boosters and fell into a quickly deteriorating orbit in November. Zheleznyakov noted that Phobus-Grunt’s failure was an especially telling episode for the embattled agency. “I hope that the situation will start to change soon, but it’s a very sad fact [concerning Fobos-Grunt]… it speaks to a serious crisis, which the division is undergoing.”

Yet even as the probe fell to earth over a torturous period of several months, Popovkin said he had found a tendency toward “unexplained” malfunctions while the aircraft were flying on the other side of the globe in a blind spot for Russian satellite tracking. “I wouldn’t like to accuse anyone, but today there exist powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can’t be excluded,” said Popovkin, reported RIA Novosti.

What Popovkin had in mind was an American HAARP research center based in the United States that primarily studies the ionosphere, but has also attracted conspiracy theories of being a secretive United States geophysical “weather” weapon. Nikolai Rodionov, a retired commander formerly in charge of Russia's ballistic missile early warning system, explained to RIA Novosti that “radiation from the powerful American radar in Alaska could have affected the control system of the interplanetary probe” on the other side of the earth. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of military industrial complex, echoed the possibility of an American radar bringing down the probe, saying: “This must be investigated. This version is not much of a stretch,” reported Russian state television.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the United States had nothing to do with the flight’s failure and had even tried to save the craft. U.S. academics agreed, saying that the desire to “shift blame” reflected the depth of Roskosmos’ problems. "It's a feature of space launch trajectories that orbital adjustments must be made halfway around the first orbit to circularize and stabilize subsequent orbits," said James Oberg, an expert on Russian and U.S. space programs. "The Russians must know that simple geography – not evildoers lurking in shadows – dictate where their communications 'blind spots' are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong," reported the Associated Press.

Zheleznyakov agreed that the theory seemed far fetched, saying that the U.S. and Russian space programs had a close working relationship and the United States would be unlikely to engage in sabotage. 

Today Popovkin did not entirely discount the possibility of American complicity in the Phobos-Grunt debacle, though he announced that it was not one of the “principal” versions of events that Roskomos was considering. Nonetheless in an unexpected announcement showing that the Russian government had not lost hope in U.S.-Russian cooperation (or in its space program), Popovkin said that a new mission would be launched, this time to the moon. He told Vesti FM radio today that Roskosmos is already in talks with its European and American partners to “either set up a base on the moon or to launch a station to orbit around it.”

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