Russia’s space program is great at launching rockets, but not much else

En route to Mars… for the last time?
En route to Mars… for the last time?
Image: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
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This week the ExoMars team placed a satellite in orbit around the red planet but failed to land the accompanying spacecraft. Scientifically the mission was largely a success: the satellite will soon start sniffing the Martian atmosphere for signs of present or past life. But the lander’s failure is symbolic of the fortunes of Russia’s Roscosmos, which is an equal partner with the European Space Agency (ESA) on ExoMars.

Russia is one of two nations (the other is China) currently capable of putting humans into space, and at that job it’s been spectacularly reliable. Without Russia’s Soyuz rockets, there would be no US astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). But on other fronts the once mighty Russian (previously Soviet) space program has floundered. Its last successful interplanetary mission was to Venus in 1984. With Mars, it’s had a string of almost unmitigated failures since its first attempted flyby in 1960.

At its height, Soviet spending on space rivaled America’s (pdf, p. 5). But now Roscosmos’s budget for the coming decade is equal to NASA’s for a single year. The $7.5 billion Vostochny Cosmodrome—a new launch site intended to restore Roscosmos’s glory—has been hit with spiraling costs, delays, strikes, and even admissions of embezzlement. Russia has also had to delay an ambitious new moon program, which includes building a lunar complex and orbital station. Worse still, Roscomos’s lucrative contracts to send NASA astronauts to the ISS may not continue beyond 2017, when SpaceX or Boeing start human launches.

So ExoMars matters a lot to Roscosmos. The mission’s next phase involves sending a rover to Mars in 2021. ESA is to build the rover while Roscosmos is to redesign the failed landing gear based on the data gathered this week. If that mission fails too, it’ll wound ESA’s pride, but it could ruin Russia’s.

This was published as part of the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief. Sign up here for our newsletter, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.