Why Russia’s Moon Mission Failed
The failure of Luna-25 is the result of generational problems in the Russian space program.
The latest bitter joke circulating in Moscow is that their ill-fated Luna-25 moon probe smashed to bits after mysteriously falling out of a 10th floor window of the Luna Hilton. Other even less humorous jokes call upon fatal impacts from invisible meteorites, or speculate when Putin will “discover” it was sabotaged. But anyone familiar with Russian culture recognizes their classic coping mechanism for dealing with disappointments decade after decade.
Some internet messages fall back on reciting the classic litany of early Soviet space firsts: in orbit, with animals and then people, beyond orbit to the moon, in those briefly glorious years when U.S. setbacks were mocked as “kaputniks” and “flopniks.” But as gardeners will tell you, nothing so quickly ruins laurels as somebody resting on them.
Usually overlooked in the nostalgia appeals are the fundamental differences of that Soviet-era space program and today’s distant dim shadow of it. The original program had top priority in Moscow, with full funding, full staffing from the brightest graduates of top universities and technical schools, full access to top quality components, both home-built or smuggled in from overseas. It attracted dedicated experts first with its noble goals and the glory of its successes, then with rare access to special hospitals and stores, the use of special vacation resorts, and exemption from compulsory military service.
None of those factors are remotely in force for today’s Russian space industry. Salaries are pitiful. Bright college graduates go into banking or international trade. Easy access to foreign-built electronics has been strangled off. As for exemption from military service, nobody knows how many of even the current workforce have been drafted into the Ukraine war.
So the astonishing half-century gap in Russia’s grasping for the moon again with Luna-25 had enormous personnel and logistics and even leadership challenges. The passing decades had clearly made the resumption of reliable lunar exploration harder and harder for a number of reasons, some obvious and some subtle.
The new mission, Luna-25, was not, as widely billed, a resumption of the decades-suspended Russian lunar exploration program. It was a rerun from its earliest simplest (but wealthiest) years, with blinders on and on a shoe-string budget. Perhaps the key factor that atrophied the most was team judgment, the ability to anticipate, recognize, and respond to inevitable technical problems that were guaranteed to show up.
Regarding research space missions beyond low Earth orbit, over the last three decades you could have counted the number of successful Russian lunar and planetary missions on the fingers of no hands—zero. This means that an entire generation of spaceflight engineers and scientists have retired or died at their desks without passing on to their successors the practiced judgment and insights needed to minimize reliability threats to such missions. Any new teams will have to go through the learning curve all over again by trial and error.
Russian culture makes the problem even worse. In the good old days, their spaceflight teams stressed training in terms of apprenticeships where new guys followed old guys around for five or ten years to pick up their unwritten rules. However, as a matter of job security, the experienced workers did not openly document their own hard-earned insights except in personal notebooks, often in their own codes.
That is, they deliberately made themselves irreplaceable, which wouldn’t have been a problem if they had also made themselves immortal. In the real world, however, in a Russia where decades of space exploration retreat provided little experience and useful job instincts, this left the replacement cadres with low-paid, inexperienced personnel. It may already be too late even to hope for a quick return to 1980s levels of aerospace industrial competence.
Shortly before his death in 2017, veteran cosmonaut Georgy Grechko spoke to the Interfax news agency about a recent string of Russian space science mission failures. He said, according to a translation, that space hardware is “precision technology that borders on fine art, yet young people are not being trained and old people are leaving.” He elaborated: “The scariest thing is that in 20 years, everything was brought to ruin, so now no matter what they do, no matter what they pay to save it, nothing will be accomplished in 20 days… You need at least 10 years to rebuild everything.”
He continued: “The staff employed are either over 60 or under 30. There is no intermediate age group. A generation was lost for the space industry, when it was struggling to survive.” He explained what he saw as the crucial problem: “People, most of them young, energetic, and talented, would seek higher earnings in other places. The space industry could not offer them any decent salary.” A large portion of the space workforce came to consist of “legacy” enthusiasts who just wanted to follow in their parent’s footsteps, whatever their personal skill levels happened to be.
Even in the 1990s, Americans working with Russian colleagues on Shuttle–Mir missions came to realize that the “corporate memory” of the Russian spaceflight design and operations team was frighteningly shallow. Major accidents (such as in-flight cabin fires on space stations) were not documented in the excruciatingly detailed “lessons learned” style favored by NASA, but were merely part of the oral tradition of older workers’ hall gossip.
One alarming example: During a 1996 briefing in Houston by Russian flight veteran Jean-Loup Chretien of France (which I attended), the subject of fire hazards came up. Official safety documents submitted by Moscow to NASA listed in-flight failures as “none.” When challenged, Chretien shrugged and said that was just the Russian style: “The fires all were easy to put out, after all.” Jaws dropped all around the table. A year later, a serious fire aboard Mir nearly killed all six men aboard, including one American and one German crewman. NASA’s press release was titled “Small Fire Put Out on Mir.”
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Russian space analyst Vitaly Egorov recently told Reuters that the goal of Luna-25 was not just to study the moon but rather to be a political statement. “The goal is political competition between two superpowers—China and the US—and a number of other countries which also want to claim the title of space superpower,” he said.
“Foreign electronics are lighter, domestic electronics are heavier,” Egorov told Reuters. “While scientists might have the task of studying lunar water, for Roscosmos the main task is simply to land on the moon—to recover lost Soviet expertise and learn how to perform this task in a new era.”
In light of the Luna-25 debacle, that goal is even more crucial if the new Russian space program is to have any credible future.