Russia was once the world leader in space exploration, but its space program has suffered a string of costly and embarrassing mishaps over the past year.
NASA says Russia is still a trustworthy partner, but critics say the once-proud program is corrupt and mismanaged — good at producing excuses, but not results.
The Memorial Space Museum in Moscow showcases the achievements of the Soviet Union’s space program.
A model of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, is on display, as well as the stuffed remains of the dogs who became the first Earthlings to orbit the planet and return.
There’s a section on Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and videos of many famous launches.
But since December 2010, Russia has experienced at least six mission failures, including the loss of a $163 million Mars probe.
Mismanagement, Theft, Brain Drain
The most recent loss came when builders damaged a Soyuz space capsule that was scheduled to take a new crew to the International Space Station at the end of this month.
Yuri Karash, a member of the Russian Space Academy, says some of the problems with Russian missions stem from mismanagement and outright theft.
Karash cites a report from the head of Russia’s government auditing agency.
“He said that a significant amount of the Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) budget was ‘misallocated,’” says Karash. “It’s a very diplomatic way to put it. It was just stolen.”
Igor Lisov, a reporter at Space News, says the agency has also suffered a brain drain, with many of the most active and knowledgeable people leaving. The good ones who stayed on, he says, did so mostly out of patriotism.
Lisov says some projects, like the failed Mars probe, took so long to complete that parts of them were obsolete before they were launched. In the end, he says, the only option was to launch it, or give it to a museum.
Karash says recent Russian budgets have allocated plenty of money for the space agency, but the organization lacks the vision and energy to innovate. He says they’re just building new versions of the same old Soviet hardware.
He illustrates his point with the example of a steam locomotive.
“You equip it with a computer. … You equip it with air conditioning. You put a locomotive driver with a university degree in the cabin, and it will still be the same steam locomotive,” he says.
Back at the museum, school groups and tourists clamber over some of that famous Soviet hardware.
A children’s choir performs next to the mock-up of a module from the International Space Station.
In the midst of it all, a vigorous old man stands shaking hands with admirers.
He wears a blue suit with two medals, gold stars hanging from red ribbons — Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor of the Soviet era.
His name is Vladimir Dzhanibekov, a 69-year-old cosmonaut who flew five missions in space.
He describes the state of the Russian space program today as stable, but stability is not something he strove for, and it’s not something he hopes for the future.
“It depends on those kids,” he says. “They have to think and to dream about and to plan future activity.”
Dzhanibekov’s blue eyes twinkle as he talks about the trip to Mars that Russia’s cosmonauts dreamed about.
“I was one of those dreamers,” says Dzhanibekov, who was such a prominent figure during his career that he appeared on a Soviet postage stamp in 1978.
Since the end of the U.S. space shuttle program, Russia’s Soyuz space capsules are the only way to get people and supplies to the International Space Station.
When the newest Soyuz capsule was damaged during testing in January, the mission to send a relief crew to the space station was delayed for at least 45 days.
The next test for the Russian space program will come when that mission is launched, on May 15.