‘Troubled’, ‘once-great’, ‘flagging’, ‘accident-prone’, ‘unreliable’ - these are adjectives often found in western accounts of the present-day Russian space programme. Occasional set-backs quickly attract headlines of ‘another Russian failure’, but are the political prejudices of the new cold war triumphing over reality?
There is no doubt that the Russian space programme contracted greatly from the end of the 1980s, when it operated the Mir space station, launched satellites weekly and roamed the solar system with its unmanned space probes. Shock capitalism in the 1990s reduced space budgets by three quarters, a similar proportion quit the workforce, scientists left for foreign countries and the breakup of the former Soviet states wrecked supply chains. Even electricity became intermittent and spacecraft were completed in darkened hangars by candlelight.
As a result, missions were grounded, delayed and cancelled, while cosmonauts had to remain in orbit until their return spacecraft were ready. Cyclical maintenance stopped, buildings decayed and even fell in on themselves.
By 1997, there were gloomy predictions that the Russian space programme would collapse altogether. The space science side was almost abandoned: lacking data from their own satellites, scientists re-ran ancient datasets or accessed American ones. No more weather satellites were launched and military observation missions became infrequent. Even the libraries could not afford to order journals and President Yeltsin did not seem interested. With no cash, the hidden casualties were new research and development, applications, infrastructure, maintenance, management and quality control.