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Category: General Ramblings (Page 1 of 19)

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Exploring the Forest Haven Asylum: A Hopeless Home for Abandoned People

Hidden only a few acres behind the trees that line the side of Route 197 in Laurel, Maryland, is the Forest Haven Asylum, an abandoned facility as obscure and forgotten as the tenants who once occupied it. Today, crumbling in decay and disrepair after years of neglect, the facility’s compound has an eerie stillness about it, as though something straight out of a horror movie. Though, perhaps that is appropriate, considering the asylum’s troubling legacy.


DSC_0829It was a slow post-Christmas weekend for my girlfriend and I. Looking for a break to conventional routine, we settled upon the decision to explore an abandoned place in Maryland. Forest Haven came as a default; most of the abandoned locations near central Maryland – Henryton Hospital, the ‘Hell House,’ Ellicott City’s silk mill – have been torn down in recent years. Too many teenagers falling through floorboards and too many illegal parties were enough to convince authorities to demolish these run-down parts of our historical heritage.

The Forest Haven Asylum complex, however, remains standing. For sure, the place doesn’t look like it did when it opened in 1925 as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded,” but its 20-some buildings are mostly still there. As we quickly came to find, though, the compound sits well-guarded; not only are the ruins located on government property, the same property that houses Fort Meade, they share an access road to a present-day juvenile detention center.

Driving up to the unexpected guard post that kept watch on the road, we brainstormed a justification for our visit. Our true intentions, to spend a day exploring ruins while capturing some interesting pictures with her new DSLR camera, were doubtfully good cause for being there. Yet after briefly speaking to the guard we were waved through. Perhaps our excuse sounded reasonable enough: “we’re journalists, documenting the more forgotten and troubling parts of our region’s past.” In our defense, that last part was definitely true.


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A present-day aerial view of the Forest Haven facility. Image source: Bing

When the Forest Haven Asylum first opened nearly 90 years ago, it was widely hailed as a forward-thinking institution, one designed around the progressive change in mental health treatment that was sweeping Europe and North America at the time.

Situated about 20 miles away from Washington D.C. on a 200-acre forested property, the asylum’s setting satisfied the period belief that the mentally ill – who often overwhelmed their families and languished at home – would do well if they  lived and received treatment away from the stresses of urban life. Their daily routines consisted of milking cattle, tending to gardens, and other ‘relaxing’ tasks designed to rehabilitate. Of course, also aligned with period beliefs were the facility’s treatment rooms for operant conditioning, post-dosage observation, and electroshock therapy.

DSC_0816While the first reviews of Forest Haven were positive, their conclusions were drawn more heavily from the facility’s concept and physical amenities than the institution’s actual execution. It was not long after opening that administrators found the place quickly becoming overcrowded and understaffed. Constrained by under-funding for decades, the staff found itself unable to offer proper treatment or find beneficial opportunities for all of their residents. Many regressed while under the asylum’s care. To make matters worse, when the District began suffering from a mid-century financial crisis, the asylum’s education and recreation programs were ended.


Forest Haven’s campus is large, but the buildings are clustered close together. The streets feel narrow from the overgrowth of grass and trees. Dormitories and support facilities, including a Chapel, surround the central office building. We started our tour in the flanks of the campus, working our way through what seemed to be an administrative office into the dormitories.

DSC_0835As you enter these buildings, it’s immediately noticeable just how decrepit the asylum has become. The buildings of Forest Haven are quite literally falling in on themselves: ceiling tiles litter the floors, drywall and insulation cover almost every interior surface, and mounds of dirt pile up in the staircases. Dark hallways give way to pockets of light shining down from holes in the roof above, while second and third floors, their foundations having given way, are broken by steep drops to the level below.

We wondered why the buildings still stood when other local sites had been torn down because of similar conditions. Walking across some creaky floorboards felt like an accident waiting to happen. Is there worth in keeping these buildings up when they pose such a liability risk? Even off-limits, the grounds are well traveled. At any rate, the buildings remain.

DSC_0808Although the institution sits on government property, it has not been taken good care of. Despite the guard posts, the place is a well-known hangout for vandals and the homeless who sneak onto the grounds. Graffiti, while not rampant, marks the walls of most buildings, with the occasional tag recurring in spots all over. The interiors are musky and the air is thick with the smell of dust and smoke; to our surprise, we found a fire still smoldering in a pile of papers sitting in the middle of a hallway of one of the buildings.

The basements, meanwhile, are veritable swamps, with inches of accumulated rainwater sustaining an ecosystem of mold and small plants. Signs for fallout shelters adorn the walls, testaments to the institution’s height of operations during the tenser years of the Cold War. The silence and stillness about the place is real, broken only by the clatter of our shoes against the cement floors, loose doors creaking in their hinges, and the occasional gust of wind blowing through openings.

DSC_0805Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine these buildings were ever inhabited, much less overcrowded. Yet it need not be imagined; the evidence of people past can be seen almost everywhere: in the medical documents and written reports pouring out of filing cabinets and littering the floors, in the gurneys and wheelchairs sitting in corners, in the various patient possessions that were left behind.

More than anything else, it was in the documents that we found the most insight into the people who called Forest Haven their home. While the buildings still remain as evidence of the place, the stories told in the papers strewn about the floor stand as testament to the people who knew it.


DSC_0793Though the asylum was originally instituted for individuals with severe mental handicaps, by the 1960s even people with treatable or mild learning disabilities were categorized as “retards” and sent to live at Forest Haven. So too were individuals deemed “undesirable” by their families or conventional hospitals, such as the deaf, dyslexic, epileptic, and illiterate. The facility’s resources, already stretched beyond their limits, were directed toward capacity instead of rehabilitation. Programs aimed at returning residents to normal life became untenable.

Coupled with the myriad other problems that befell Forest Haven, this would inevitably lead to cases of chronic abuse that would plague its patients in the decades leading up to its closure. Suits against the District for the mistreatment patients suffered in Forest Glenn were first brought to the D.C. Superior Court in 1972. They brought to light chronic mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the facility.

DSC_0824Throughout the 1970s, the families of abused residents continued to build cases against Forest Haven by tracking patient mistreatment and turning their findings over to the Justice Department. Visiting families spoke of residents being bound to urine-soaked mattresses in locked wards. One particularly egregious story was that of a woman named Bertha Brown, who suffered from a disease which caused her to eat anything in sight. Tied to a toilet and left unattended, she tried to eat her feces and choked to death.

Yet the real impetus toward reform came in 1976, with the death of 17 year old Joy Evans. Joy died from aspiration pneumonia, an infection of the lungs caused by food or saliva. Unattended, Joy choked on her own food, as patients were often fed lying or strapped down to their beds. Joy’s parents filed a Federal class-action lawsuit against Forest Haven, detailing the facility’s abuses:

The lack of comprehensive rehabilitation programs to meet individual needs of residents; the unsafe, unsanitary, and unpleasant condition of the Forest Haven facilities; inadequate staffing, lack of training, and abuse of residents by staff; inadequate medical, dental, and mental health care and nutrition; inadequate record-keeping; lack of after-care and rehabilitation programs and vocational training for former residents; and inadequate funding.

DSC_0832On June 14th, 1978, signing what became known as the Pratt Decree, Judge Pratt of the United States District Court ordered the institution to close. By the late 1970s, as patents were gradually moved out of the facility, the population of Forest Haven had fallen to around 1,300.

Still, crimes against the mentally ill would continue.


DSC_0804In the facility’s administrative building, patient records sit out right near the open entrance. Reading them was a quick introduction to the medical diagnoses and evaluations that characterized every resident of the institution. At the time, we were unaware of the history of the place. From these papers, a voice was given to Forest Haven’s past.

Drug addiction, lack of education, and inability to find work came up often as items listed for the residents’ issues. Some had been listless in life before Forest Haven, unemployed and homeless. Others had faced trouble at home, usually coupled with trouble with the law. Yet in these papers were peoples’ stories, told through their brief medical histories and personal descriptions. These were people who, deemed as going nowhere, were sent to Forest Haven, where they found themselves with nowhere to go.

DSC_0807Not everything we stumbled upon was official paperwork. In both the administrative building and the dormitories, we came upon personal journals, notebooks, reading supplies and literature, and handwritten notes. Many of them appeared written by the residents themselves.

One note, written in neat cursive and covered in soot, stood out to me in particular. It was a list of goals, short-term and long-term: finish my GED, go to school. Stay drug free, give back to the community. The words seemed to speak for all of the voices we couldn’t hear, a humanizing and personal touch in a setting otherwise defined by decaying installations. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they succeeded. Or is their story, all their stories, lost, buried in a pile of loose writings in a crumbling corner of an abandoned hallway?

DSC_0812Themes of liberation and freedom ring out of the murals plastered on the dormitory walls. Images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. tatter with the failing paint. There didn’t seem much hope left in it anymore.


Because of the court order to close Forest Haven, no improvements or repairs would be made to the buildings for over a decade. Continuous use stressed the structures beyond their capabilities. The facility was crumbling, even as people continued to live inside it.

DSC_0809With patients being transferred out of the facility and into group homes, staffing and funding at Forest Haven saw even deeper cuts than before. The asylum sat as most of its Medicare and government subsidies evaporated. Qualified volunteers and staff members were few and far between.

Ten deaths occurred at the asylum between 1989 and 1990, a remarkable rate considering the institution had only 252 residents at the time. The rate of bowel obstructions, aspiration pneumonia, rashes, and muscle atrophy accelerated to obscene levels in the final months of Forest Haven. By 1991, only ninety one patients remained in the facility, yet they fared far worse than those who came before them.


DSC_0819It wasn’t only documents that littered the interiors of Forest Haven’s facilities. We were surprised just how many items – books, computers, clipboards, machines, equipment – were left behind. Rooms still sit almost entirely furnished.

It was enough to make us start wondering what happened at Forest Haven, and why it was left as it was. While today these virtual artifacts are deteriorating from age and the elements, they must’ve amounted to a considerable sum of worth at the time the facility closed. Walking among the scenes they set in these forgotten buildings was lonely, apocalyptic. One of us observed that the place felt like something out of Fallout 4. It was an apt assessment.

DSC_0837In the dormitories, we came across what may have been the library. Piles of books are poured across the floor. Their bindings are slowly unwinding, sitting in inches of water and muck. I found myself moved by the tragic scene, one which a line of graffiti scribbled along the wall satirized properly. “Drop out of school. Read books.”

We continued our tour through the facility. The idyllic buildings had grown imposing on me; the longer we stayed, the stronger I felt that the place belonged in a horror movie. As the day progressed, the sun’s light sent shadows flying across different surfaces; light areas grew dim, doorways ended in rooms of darkness. The movement of trees’ limbs shaking in the corner of our eyes sent us casting jumpy glances, believing someone was there. As we entered the administrative building, we thought we heard a sneeze. Perhaps we weren’t alone.

DSC_0833A dentist’s office sits ready in the administrative building, complete with chairs and equipment. It was cramped, liked many of the hallway’s other offices, perhaps as a dentist’s office should be. We found further medical facilities down the hall; a medical ward of sorts.

I tried to imagine the sounds of bustle in the place, of doctors going through their files, sick patients coughing down the halls, medical supplies banging around in their containers. I tried, but the gentle whistle of the light wind squeezing through the collapsing ceiling drowned out the phantom bustle I sought to conjure. And then: another sneeze. Was it my mind playing tricks, twisting a dropping tile or a collapsing desk into what they were not, or did we have company? Footsteps. I glanced over at my girlfriend, who seemed far less perturbed, grabbed her arm, and quickly made down the building’s winding staircase and out the open frame that was once a loading dock. Leaving, we heard, from back in the building, slight murmurs. Who it was, we never found out.


Forest Haven’s final weeks were, to say the least, hectic. As residents were readied to move, the staff packed their belongings into small footlockers and tucked away their suitcases in empty corners of the facility. The last fifteen residents were moved out in late September 1991, 13 years after the order was given to close the institution. Finally, on October 14th, the Forest Haven asylum officially closed. It had served the District for 66 years.

DSC_0813Yet an official declaration of closure is merely a bureaucratic tool, some mid-level government worker placing a signature upon a promptly filed-away piece of paper. Though Forest Haven had closed in its capacity as an asylum, new uses were found for its premises. One of the buildings toward the far end of the grounds became a holding block of sorts for troubled female youths. As it turned out, a lack of communication between the agencies responsible for the site had left some officials unaware that the building was crumbling and packed with asbestos.

The remainder of the buildings sat. And sat. A March 2004 audit of the facility, nearly 12 years after its official closure, found gross mismanagement on the part of the District. None of the unused buildings had ever been secured. Many still had power and running water; documents were shuffled into different buildings instead of being destroyed. Even the medical equipment and computers, while stored, remained functional. Finally, in December 2011, 20 years after Forest Haven was shut down – 30 years after the order to close its doors was given – the District allocated the funds to properly handle and secure what remained at the property.

DSC_0792Much, but not all, of the equipment in Forest Haven – enough to fill a museum – was removed following the 2011 destruction order. Yet, as we experienced firsthand during our visit 5 years later, enough remains to tell the story of the place; documents litter the floor, chairs and gurneys sit unused, filing cabinets are spilled across rooms. The photographs in this post are testament enough to what remains. One need not search long or hard to get a sense of the Forest Haven’s purpose or its legacy’s meaning.


We left Forest Haven through its main access road as the sun began to set, walking past buildings casting dark shadows upon our path. We coming across a service vehicle – or, more aptly put, the service vehicle came upon us, its driver quickly booking it down the road to cut us off. He met us with a stern look and a series of interrogatives. We repeated our story to him and, though he seemed perturbed, he let us walk by and back to our car. Did he know about the troubling history of the facility he guarded? Was he paid enough to care?

DSC_0810Driving home from Forest Haven, I was enthused about the opportunity to write this blog post. How often does one explore a still-furnished yet long-abandoned facility? I had hoped this post would be a fun little travel log, a story of our wanderings if nothing else. I had already begun writing this post when I decided, on a whim, to search a little into the asylum’s backstory. Maybe – I reasoned – it would provide some good context for the reader. I’d devote a paragraph, maybe two, to that history and then be done with it. No need to bore my audience with insignificant tokens of the past.

In the end, our exploration of the facility turned out to be what was insignificant, a simple justification to devote discussion to the place’s history. And that history, far from being a token of the past, was, is, and will remain a troubling scar upon and a damning indictment of  our mental health system and of our dealing with our historical heritage.


According to various sources, some 3,200 patients spent time at the institution while its doors were open. Considering the 387 deaths that occurred at Forest Haven, it had a residential death rate of twelve percent. Statistically, one in ten people who showed up at Forest Haven – often the disabled, the troubled, the rejects of society – wouldn’t expect to leave alive.

The Forest Haven Asylum: a hopeless home for abandoned people.


Further Reading:

http://sometimes-interesting.com/2014/04/12/abandoned-home-for-the-abandoned-forest-haven-asylum/ – (all credit goes to this truly fantastic write-up, from which I drew most of my information)

http://dcist.com/2013/11/abandoneddc_haven.php#photo-1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/march99/grouphome14.htm

http://articles.latimes.com/1994-04-03/magazine/tm-41569_1_forest-haven-bleak-house-institutional-abuse

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_Haven

Source: Universe Today

With ExoMars, will Russia break its “Mars Curse?”

In the mid-morning of March 14, 2016, a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter lifted off from the Bikonaur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppes, headed for a seven month journey to Mars. The launch marked the beginning of a long-awaited, multi-phase Mars exploration program – consisting of the satellite and lander and eventually a rover – jointly run by Europe and Russia. By ushering in a new era of European Mars exploration and rebooting Russia’s interplanetary program, the ExoMars mission can rightful be considered historic. But possibly just as significant, considering the historical context, is the opportunity Russia now has to break the “Mars curse” it’s been under for nearly half a century.

“The Mars Curse”

The past fifty years of Mars exploration have been unfavorable, unlucky even, for the Russians. Over this time, not one of the 18 total Soviet and Russian mission to Mars was a full success. Some were lost in launch failures, others stopped communicating en route, and a few managed to function around Mars for only a number of months – shorter than their expected length of operation.

97/2/4Space craft model, Mars 3 USSR/Russian Academy of Sciences side view

The Mars 3 spacecraft. Source: The Powerhouse Museum

Of the 15 missions launched to Mars between 1960 and 1973, only four – Mars 2 and 3 in 1971 and Mars 4 and 5 in 1973 – returned any useful data. Three of four landing attempts failed, and the one that successfully achieved soft-landing fell silent merely 20 seconds after touchdown. By 1973, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and turned attention to other destinations, where they found better luck. They conducted an ambitious robotic exploration of the Moon, which culminated in a return of lunar samples by Luna 24 in 1976. Meanwhile, a series of missions to Venus were highly successful, as were two probes sent to Halley’s Comet.

Still, Mars beckoned. A number of highly ambitious missions to Mars were planned in the 1980s and 90s – to the dismay of scientists whose hopes were dashed when these too failed.  Phobos 1 and 2, launched in 1988, were designed to explore the small Martian moons, deploying landers and hoppers to scout their surface. Contact was lost with Phobos 1 on the way to Mars. Phobos 2 came tantalizingly close, up to the critical lander deployment phase of its mission, before suddenly falling silent due to a computer failure.

Even amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian planners managed to scrape together resources for a mission in 1996 and worked on improvements to the Phobos probe design it would utilize. The Mars 96 spacecraft – at the time the heaviest interplanetary probe ever built – carried a lander with equipment to penetrate and study Mars’ interior. It met a fiery fate burning up on reentry after the rocket launching it failed.

In light of these setbacks, the developing economic crisis of the late 1990s, and increasing Russian involvement in the International Space Station, the Mars program was again put on hold. Following the destruction of the Mars 96 spacecraft, another 15 years would pass before the Russian space program was ready to attempt another shot at Mars. Once again, the joint Russian-Chinese Phobos-Grunt mission, prepared for launch in 2011, was just as ambitious, if not more so, than those which came before it.

A render of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Source: Space.com

A render of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Source: Space.com

The spacecraft, weighing in at 13.2-metric-tons, featured a Phobos lander, a sample return vehicle, a Chinese sub-satellite, and instruments and experiments from France, Finland, Bulgaria, and The Planetary Society. Its objective was, and remains, perhaps the most lofty in the history of Mars exploration – obtain a sample of surface soil from Phobos and return it to Earth for study.

Commentators hoped that Phobos-Grunt would mark the end of the “Mars Curse.” Mission planners recognized the stakes, acknowledging that if “any one of the critical stages [of the mission] fails, the whole mission will be compromised.” Yet faith and optimism again turned to dismay in late 2011, as Phobos-Grunt became trapped in Earth orbit due to an upper stage failure. Like Mars 96 before it, the mission ended in failure as the spacecraft burned up in its eventual reentry back through Earth’s atmosphere.

“With ExoMars, Lessons Learned?”

Whether one believes in luck or not, it is clearly agreeable that Russia’s experience with Mars has been marked by misfortune. Of course, this track record was made poor through multiple influencing factors. For many of Russia’s pre-1973 missions, failure was at least in part the result of early-stage technology and limited experience. Such was the nature of early space exploration; the United States’ record with interplanetary spacecraft during this period was not much better. The Soviets tried to “brute force” the issue by launching a large bulk of spacecraft at Mars, hoping some of them would succeed – hence the significant failure rate.

Yet from the 1970s through the 1990s, the United States saw recurring success at Mars while the Soviets continued to face technical issues flying to the planet. Still, advancements in technology and the decades of design upgrades between Phobos 1/2 and Phobos-Grunt lent some continuing confidence that further missions were possible.

The two – failed – Mars missions of Russia’s “modern” exploration program, Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt, shared two commonalities:

  • An “all-eggs-in-one-basket,” highly ambitious, expensive approach to design and planning;
  • Mission failure brought about by failures during launch/early operations.

On the first point – Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt were both expensive, high-profile, multi-part spacecraft designed as flagship missions. Years of planning, design, and construction went into each mission, as well as significant dedications of funding. A wide array of lofty science goals were contingent upon the spacecrafts’ operation, a single point of failure. The failure of one, let alone both, would’ve represented a considerable loss on investment – enough to reasonably prompt a halting and review of Russia’s Mars exploration program. And, as it turned out, both were destroyed before even leaving Earth orbit. As such, Russia has not returned to Mars in over a quarter of a century.

This approach contrasts with that taken by the United States over the past two decades, which spreads science objectives over a long-term plan by striking a balance between successive small and large-scale missions. Such an approach has served to reduce the risk associated with losing a spacecraft; while obviously a setback, NASA’s Mars exploration roadmap has not been sufficiently jeopardized in terms of funding or achieving scientific objectives when missions have failed (such as the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999).

A Russian Proton rocket fails in a 2013 launch. Source: Space.com

A Russian Proton rocket fails in a 2013 launch. Source: Space.com

As for the launch failures – Russia’s launch industry has faced a slew of launch-related issues over the past years. These issues have not been isolated to missions to Mars – multiple satellite launches have failed due to malfunctions with the rocket – though recent Mars missions have been affected. Mars 96’s fate was sealed when its Block D-2 upper stage failed during second ignition, sending the spacecraft on a trajectory back into Earth’s atmosphere instead of onward to Mars. Phobos-Grunt failed when a computer error prevented its rockets from reigniting, leaving the spacecraft stranded in orbit.

Regardless of the point of failure in launch, be it initial ascent or in the upper stage, the issues seen in Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt, as well as a slew of other failed launches, point to systemic problems in the Russian space industry. The post-launch investigation report for Phobos-Grunt pointed to cheap parts, poor quality control, insufficient testing, and corruption as root causes of the failure. As much as issues with technology have held back Russia’s exploration program, so too have issues with the culture in the industry and bureaucracy.

With ExoMars, however, Russia appears to be taking steps to alleviate these issues. In December of 2015, President Putin dissolved Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, replacing it with the Roscosmos State Corporation – a state-run corporation that consolidates the entire Russian space industry under a single point of authority. This reform could be, depending on implementation, a first step toward resolving the issues of corruption, bureaucracy, inefficiency, and financial mismanagement which have plagued Russia’s launch services in recent years. It remains too early to tell, however, whether this reorganization will bring an end to the steady cadence of launch-associated issues and whether reform amounts to tangible changes in the status quo.

A more marked suggestion of change is in the approach Russia is taking toward planning its missions to Mars. The ExoMars program represents a significant departure from the “eggs-in-one-basket” design characteristic of Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt. The program is split into two stages – the Trace Gas Orbiter, which just launched, and the ExoMars rover to launch sometime in 2018. The Schiaparelli lander currently attached to the Trace Gas Orbiter will test the landing techniques needed to successfully deploy the rover, and the Trace Gas Orbiter will eventually serve as a communications relay between Earth and the rover.

As such, with the slew of scientific targets and instruments spread across both vehicles, the program isn’t doomed to failure with the loss of one or the other spacecraft. Equally so, the loss of one or the other spacecraft won’t entail as significant a loss on investment as it would were the whole program integrated on a single vehicle. This staggered, evolutionary approach, reminiscent of NASA’s MER program consisting of the Pathfinder lander followed by the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers, can be considered a safer bet for a Russia burdened by recent spacecraft failures.

A significant element of ExoMars is its nature as a joint Russian-European project. While both are major partners, the European Space Agency has paid-in the most to foot the mission’s cost. In return, Russia has agreed to provide services that fall outside the European Space Agency’s expertise. Per the agreement set out with the European Space Agency, Russia’s involvement in the ExoMars program will entail:

  • Providing launches for both missions using the heavy-lift Proton rocket;
  • Providing an entry-descent-landing (EDL) spacecraft to carry the ExoMars rover down to the Martian surface;
  • Having space allocated for two scientific instruments on the Trace Gas Orbiter;
  • Having joint intellectual property rights over the scientific information returned by the missions.

This set of responsibilities comes with both risk and benefit for the mission. Of interesting note is Russia’s primary responsibility as launch and EDL provider – two direct areas where its recent track-record is poor and where responsibility for failure falls squarely on them. Yet this arraignment takes into account Russia’s overall competitive advantage with these technologies –  the Proton rocket is substantially more powerful than European equivalents (indeed, past European missions to Mars have purchased rides on Russian or Russian-derived rockets) and Russia has a long, successful history with EDL on the Moon and Venus. In the end, it is a more financially and operationally sound decision to have Russia provide these services than for Europe to develop the technologies and practices itself.

ESA Exomars robot

A design of the ExoMars rover. Source: SpaceNews

Russia can find benefit in the split responsibilities. While it has the right to provide scientific instruments for experiments and has right over the total scientific data gathered during the course of the program, the country is otherwise contributing little to the actual spacecraft involved in the missions. The Trace Gas Orbiter, the Schiaparelli lander, and the ExoMars Rover are all European designed and built vehicles.

To that end, Russia need not take bets with its self-described “inefficient and corrupt” space sector – to which the finger was pointed after the failure of the past two Mars missions – and can instead rely on European contractors, technologies, and standards to achieve mission success. At the same time, Russia can absolve itself – and insulate its exploration program from the resulting repercussions of – responsibility for spacecraft failure during the operational portion of the flight. Similarly, the European Space Agency is responsible for the spacecrafts’ tracking, maintenance, and communications, again absolving Russia of direct responsibility over these crucial, and challenging, elements of the flight.

“The ‘Curse’ may be Broken. What now?”

The launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter went smoothly, though some sources reported a near-disaster when the spacecraft’s upper stage booster exploded after separation, and the ExoMars mission is on its way to the planet. So far, it seems, so good, and the mission has now progressed further than Russia’s last two. Still, Russia’s “Mars curse” may not be broken just yet – the Trace Gas Orbiter still needs to complete its mission, and Russia will need to perform to expectations with the ExoMars rover, where the country’s operational responsibilities are more significant. Nonetheless, hopes are rightfully high that all will go as planned.

Should the ExoMars missions succeed, the arraignment between Russia and the European Space Agency for joint-responsibility could come to represent a paradigm shift in how Russia interweaves international cooperation into its exploration strategy and uses it as a means to success. While Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt carried instruments from other nations, including a substantial Chinese satellite, Russia remained the major partner and held responsibility for most, if not all, portions of the missions. With ExoMars, the European Space Agency and Russia are both major – if not entirely equal in terms of mission funding – partners, each drawing full benefit from the scientific and exploration data derived from the mission. In effect, Russia will have found its first interplanetary success in over two decades by partnering and sharing responsibility with other space programs in lieu of ‘going it alone.’

This could lead Russian policymakers and mission planners to one of two conclusions – Russia’s space sector has demonstrated enough success with its portions of ExoMars that the country is ready to reengage in its own exploration missions, or Russia should pursue further international cooperation and responsibility sharing when attempting an interplanetary exploration mission.

The conclusion, and resulting decisions, will depend on mid to long-term factors. The ExoMars program will not be “finished” until 2020, 6 years after the launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter. In that time, Russia’s reorganization of its space sector may have produced enough positive change to warrant another look at an indigenous Mars mission. Yet, equally possible, those changes may not manifest in 6 years time, if at all, should the reports about how rooted the corruption and bad practices are in the Russian space program be true. Because of the opaque nature of Russia’s space program, it also remains to be seen where interplanetary science fits into the country’s new space organization, if at all.

Of similar significance is Russia’s budgetary constraints. Facing an economic crisis brought about by world events, the new budget and plan allocated to the Russian space program is modest at best. According to the plan, a renewed focus will be on robotic lunar exploration, likely building off the successful designs of the Soviet lunar program, but space research – including interplanetary exploration missions – is facing a cut.

It is important to keep in consideration Russia’s new space plan covers space activities until 2025, 5 years after the tentative end of the ExoMars program. Such may not afford Russia enough time – or money – to engage in a new Mars exploration program, in which case the lessons learned by ExoMars may be moot or inconsequential in the future’s circumstances. Alternatively, this may give Russia all the more reason to seek out further international cooperation on interplanetary exploration. By partnering jointly with the European Space Program for ExoMars, many of the program’s costs were offset for Russia – a favorable way to work around the constrained budgetary environment. Equally important, Russia’s involvement in ExoMars came after the program had been initiated by the Europeans, cutting short Russia’s long-term involvement in planning and mission design. This “piggy-backing,” in which Russia’s exploration program need not dedicate needed resources to years-long planning, could serve as an effective way to participate in exploration missions within the short term.

Yet this last point poses a significant challenge to Russia, as well. ExoMars was initiated in 2009 as a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. In 2011, when the United States dropped out of the program because of constrained funding and priorities for NASA, the fate of the missions seemed threatened. This gave Russia ample opportunity to sign an agreement of cooperation with Europe where it enjoyed the benefits of a full partnership while contributing comparatively less financing, responsibilities, and planning. To that end, should Russian policymakers seek to replicate the efforts and execution of ExoMars in future programs, they may be hard pressed to find an equally favorable set of circumstances.

Nonetheless, some current opportunities may present themselves as the opening Russia needs. Both China and India are planning interplanetary exploration missions in the next five years, and both espouse long-term exploration plans within the inner Solar System. Considering that Russia has been courting stronger relations with these countries in global affairs, and that international cooperation in space exploration is seen as a positive way to build soft-power relations and mutual trust, future cooperative missions with these countries may benefit Russia’s broader geopolitical goals and could mirror ExoMars both in execution and success.

Of course, with the ExoMars program only now just flying, these decisions are still many years away. Many factors may and likely will come to play a role in Russia’s exploration strategy and approach which fall beyond the scope detailed here. Either way, this much is clear:

With ExoMars, Russia has demonstrated clear ‘lessons learned’ from its past two – failed – attempts at Mars, and could employ these lessons to favorable affect in the future despite a constrained budgetary environment and exploration plan. Though the Trace Gas Orbiter is still on its way to Mars, and the ExoMars rover has yet to launch, Russia has performed better with this interplanetary mission than it has in the past two decades. Indeed, the “Mars Curse” may well soon be broken – with Russia finding its first interplanetary success since 1988.

Drawing: Landscape # 2

Jungle
“Jungle Waterfall”

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