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Russia: U.S. Officials Regret Loss Of Mars Spacecraft

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington, 19 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. space officials are expressing regret over this weekend's loss of a Russian probe to Mars.

The Russian Space Agency's (RSA's) Mars 96 spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Saturday, but ran into trouble when an engine intended to boost it out of the Earth's orbit to Mars reportedly failed to fire.

The spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere, scattering debris across a remote area of the Pacific Ocean. Earlier fears by space experts that the debris, including four small batteries with radioactive plutonium, might fall on Australia proved unfounded.

The failure of Mars 96, which carried an orbiter, two small landers, and two surface penetrators to study the Martian atmosphere and surface, is a blow both for the RSA and for scientists from 21 countries flying experiments aboard the spacecraft. The mission was part of a series of probes scheduled by the U.S. space agency NASA and the RSA through the end of this decade to jointly explore Mars.

The first spacecraft in the series, a U.S.-built orbiter to map the Martian terrain, was launched from Florida earlier this month. The series will continue with the December launch of a small American surface rover to analyze the planet's rocks, and the 1999 U.S. launch of yet another orbiter plus a craft to land in Mars' polar region.

Dr. Roger Bourke, who oversees international cooperation for the Mars Missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, calls the failure of Mars 96 "an enormous setback for everyone in the world interested in Mars." He says the mission included experiments which now will not be performed and it is too early to know if they can be replaced in future missions.

Bourke says this weekend's disaster serves as a reminder that exploring space "still remains a very risky business even if it often looks routine." Both NASA and the RSA have suffered mission failures in the past, but solved their problems to continue their space programs successfully.

Analysts say that NASA and the RSA will continue working closely together in space exploration despite the setback of this weekend's cooperative Mars 96 mission. The reasons are both technical and financial.

On the technical side, Bourke says NASA and the RSA each offer strengths the other lacks. He told RFE/RL that "Russia for a long time has been able to launch much more massive payloads than the United States, (while) the United States has put its efforts into rather sophisticated electronics and computers and machines that will operate autonomously. So, there is a complimentary (relationship) here."

Both sides also have financial reasons to cooperate. Each is struggling with greatly reduced budgets since the space race days of the Cold War, and cooperation offers a way to stretch funds. NASA's budget today is just some 60 percent of what it was during the 1960s. The RSA has said it needs one percent of the Russian national budget to fund its projects, but for 1996 a cash-strapped Moscow responded with just a sixth of that amount.

The mutual benefits of cooperating seem to have firmly wedded NASA and the RSA in space for the foreseeable future. In November next year, the space agencies will begin a two-year project to assemble a joint space station in orbit. The RSA will launch the station's power block and its first inhabitable module. The United States will launch a node allowing the Space Shuttle to dock with the space station.

If all goes according to plan the space station will begin operating in May 1998, when a Soyuz rocket is due to deliver its first occupants -- two people from the RSA and one from NASA. Both space agencies plan to maintain and expand the space station as their principal orbiting facility for the coming decades.