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.