From the late 1950s through the 1970s, the Soviet Union was a space-exploration powerhouse. Its probes were the first to land safely on the Moon, the first to see the lunar farside, and the first to drive across the lunar landscape. The Soviets also were the first to land a probe on Venus, and the first to fly a balloon on any planet.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late ’80s, so did its space program. Faced with severe economic problems, Russia had little money to explore the universe. Its one major attempt — a 1996 mission to Mars — ended quickly when its booster rocket failed.
Top scientists and engineers soon moved to projects other than space exploration. Facilities crumbled or were sold off to raise money. In the last 15 years, there have been no major Russian missions beyond Earth orbit.
But the Russians are trying to get back in the game. They’re planning to launch a new planetary mission as early as this week. Known as Phobos-Grunt, it’s designed to land on one of the moons of Mars and bring a sample of it back to Earth; we’ll have more about its mission tomorrow.
Even when the Soviet Union was a space powerhouse, though, it had little luck with Mars. All but a couple of its missions to the Red Planet ended in failure. So Phobos-Grunt is not only an attempt to get back in the game of space exploration — it’s an attempt to boldly go where no Russian spacecraft has gone before.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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