Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Phobos-Grunt is a Russian space probe that was supposed to return samples from Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. However, it got stuck in LEO back in November and crashed in the Pacific Ocean (off Chile) on January 15th. I think a failed rocket engine burn prevented the probe to leave Earth orbit. Our CEO sent a link to a website that tracked the mission in great detail. Reading through the article, it's pretty clear that even though Russia is no longer a communist country, the poor management practices is still very much alive.
January 9

In an interview to the Izvestiya daily published on January 9, the head of the Russian space agency, Vladimir Popovkin finally admitted a number of critical flaws in the organization and design of the Phobos-Grunt mission, about which observers had warned all along and which the agency had vehemently denied in the past and attempted to punish the few journalists who had exposed these problems. At the same time, Popovkin defended the fateful decision to launch the spacecraft, portraying the current leadership of the agency as a hostage of bad decisions in the past.

"Phobos-Grunt was developed and built under conditions of limited funding, which predetermined risky technical decisions and made the whole mission problematic," Popovkin said, "We became hostages of these decisions, since we had been bound by agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA), whose instruments were onboard, and with Chinese colleagues, whose satellite we had committed to carry to Mars. In addition, the spacecraft was under construction for a very long time and warranties and operational lifetimes of many components were approaching their limits. If we missed the 2011 launch window for the flight to Mars, we simply had to throw away the spacecraft and write off five billion rubles of investments (into the project)."

It should be noted that numerous officials involved in the Phobos-Grunt project contradict Popovkin's statements about lack of funding for the project, at least in the past several years. Also, the most problematic part of the project and a likely culprit in its ultimate demise -- the flight control system, BKU -- was a result of engineering and management incompetence rather than funding. Finally, it is unlikely that agreements with ESA would prevent the delay of the mission from 2011, if the real status of the project was honestly communicated to international partners. Numerous international participants in the project repeatedly said that Russian space officials had assured them in the readiness of the spacecraft for launch in 2011. It is also obvious that replacing some out-of-warranty components would have been a much better decision than launching a doomed mission.

Yet, Popovkin went even further and repeated a really bizarre accusation which had been previously made by at least one high-ranking Russian military officer about the possible sabotage of the Phobos-Grunt mission by foreign powers, hence by the United States. "Today there is no clarity, why the propulsion unit onboard Phobos-Grunt failed to start, Popovkin told Izvestiya, "It is also unclear, why our satellites often have failures at the time when they fly out of range (of Russian ground control) where we don't see the vehicle and do not receive telemetry from it. There is no wish to accuse anybody, but today there are very powerful means of influence on spacecraft and the possibility of their use can not be excluded."

Huh? He thinks the US sabotaged the mission? That sounds a lot like China's Foreign Ministry... any protests or other dissent in China is caused by foreigners trying to overthrow the government.

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