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Russia’s Space Dreams Shattered As Luna-25 Crashes On The Moon

  • The Luna-25 mission's failure comes almost 47 years after the Soviet's Luna-24 successfully retrieved lunar soil.
  • A series of recent mishaps, scandals, and international tensions have shaken confidence in the Russian space agency, Roskosmos.
  • Despite its early pioneering space achievements, Russia's space industry is now marred by outdated technology and political controversies.

On August 18, 1976, a 4-meter-high spacecraft called the Luna-24 touched down on the Mare Crisium, a flat plain in the moon’s northern hemisphere. Four days later, the Soviet-built vehicle returned to Earth, carrying a valuable sample of lunar soil, a portion of which Soviet scientists later swapped with colleagues at NASA in the name of international scientific cooperation.

Almost 47 years later to the day, Russian engineers tried a near-repeat of that feat, seeking to land a craft packed with scientific instruments on the moon’s southern hemisphere, with the goal of spending a year surveying the lunar surface.

The mission, Luna-25, failed spectacularly nine days after launch, on August 20, when the craft “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface,” according to the Russian space agency, Roskosmos.

The mishap was the latest in a string of embarrassments, failures, and scandals that have plagued Roskosmos over the past decade, highlighting the decline of a storied space industry whose pioneering achievements in the 1950s and 1960s are now distant memories.

Bygone Successes

Those bygone successes include the first man-made object to fly by, the first object to crash-land, and finally, in 1966, the first object to land on the moon – all part of the Luna project missions. The last such mission, Luna-24, returned to Earth with lunar soil samples on August 22, 1976.

“This is another indicator of how the Soviet/Russian space program has deteriorated over the years,” said Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station. He also drew a parallel with the problems Russia’s military has struggled with in its war against Ukraine.

“They have had a few close calls and failures with their Soyuz and Progress vehicles lately, and the world saw the many issues with their military, highlighted with the problems they are having in their war on Ukraine,” Chiao said in an e-mail. “The fact that they cannot mount a mission to the Moon like they did in 1976 speaks volumes about the state of their aerospace industry today.”

Following the end of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet space race gave way to more cooperation between Moscow and Washington -- and later, more competition among other nations to get back to the moon. Russia has wanted to return to the lunar surface since the 2000s, and more recently pushed to join forces to build a joint lunar base with China, whose space program has leapt forward in recent years. Beijing successfully landed a probe on the moon for the first time in January 2019.

India, meanwhile, plans to land its unmanned Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft at the moon’s south pole on August 23 -- its third such mission. And the United States is leading an international effort to return humans to the moon by 2025, a program called the Artemis Accords.

'Not The Best' Decision

Luna-25 would have been Russia’s first probe on the moon’s surface since the Soviet collapse -- and the first since 1976.

Roskomos convened an investigative panel to try and pinpoint the cause of the failure. The agency's director, Yury Borisov, said on state TV on August 21 that the "main cause" was that the engines that were to put the spacecraft in a pre-landing orbit fired for 127 seconds instead of the required 84 seconds.

One Russian scientist suggested in an interview with the state news agency RIA Novosti that engineers had recorded problems with the mission but that they were not considered major.

“There were problems. They were not that significant, but the signs were, so to speak, disturbing, but everyone hoped that they would somehow be able to sort it out,” Natan Eismont, a space researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying. “If we have a deviation slightly higher than expected, this is an alarming fact, but apparently it was not alarming enough to make a radical decision” to delay or call off the landing.

“It is sad that there was time and, apparently, the decision on how to proceed was not the best,” he told RIA-Novosti.

'We Have Somewhat Lost Our Competence'

Aleksandr Zheleznyakov, a rocket designer and engineer, also said it was unclear what caused the failure, but suggested that Russia’s space industry was not keeping up with new technologies.

“Science has gone ahead, and technology has gone ahead -- unfortunately, over the years we have somewhat lost our competence, both in interplanetary flights and in landings on other planets,” he told the media outlet RBK.

For longtime observers of Russia’s space endeavors -- manned and unmanned -- the crash of Luna-25 had echoes of another ambitious effort more than a decade earlier. In 2011, Russian engineers launched an unmanned probe called Fobos-Grunt from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on a two-year journey to Mars.

But the craft’s boosters misfired shortly after launch, and it orbited the Earth for two months before crashing and burning into the Pacific Ocean.

After Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Western countries, including the United States, began placing sanctions on Russian companies and top officials.

Still, NASA managed to continue to partnership with Russia, jointly operating the International Space Station and contracting to fly astronauts and cargo back and forth to the station. The U.S. space agency is now less reliant on Russian spacecraft, due to the successes of private companies like SpaceX, which are getting an increasing number of contracts for supply and transport.

In more recent years, Roskosmos has been battered by a succession of mishaps and scandals. That includes a still-unexplained man-made hole found on a Russian-built module at the station, a harrowing emergency landing of crew members returning to Earth, and a scandal involving the demotion of a respected cosmonaut.

In 2021, a Russian military test of an anti-satellite weapon spewed debris into a high-velocity orbit around Earth, potentially endangering the station. Though blame fell on Moscow’s aerospace forces, the incident further undermined faith in Russia’s space industry.

After Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022, international cooperation and business deals -- for example for revenue-generating commercial satellite launches -- all but evaporated.

The cascade of scandals, which included very public reports of rampant corruption at a new cosmodrome called Vostochny, occurred under the leadership of Dmitry Rogozin, a nationalist politician and former ambassador to NATO whose often bombastic public statements strained relations with NASA.

In July 2022, five months after the Ukraine invasion, President Vladimir Putin fired Rogozin, replacing him with Borisov, a technocrat who was a deputy prime minister at the time.

More recently, Roskosmos has found itself in a thorny contract dispute with Kazakhstan over operations at Baikonur and a proposed new facility for launching a next-generation rocket -- without which Russia’s efforts at generating more revenue from commercial satellite launches will be in jeopardy.


For veteran scientists like Mikhail Marov, who worked for decades on Soviet and Russian space exploration programs, the Luna-25 crash was heartbreaking.

“It’s sad that we weren’t successful in landing the craft,” he told the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. “For me, perhaps, this was the last hope of seeing the revival of our lunar program.”

By Mike Eckel via RFE/RL

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Leave a comment
  • Steven Conn on August 22 2023 said:
    What this US state news agency omitted would have given the reader a better perspective.

    Firstly, neither the EU space agency, nor Japan, nor Israel, nor so far India have been able to place a lander on the Moon, in spite of attempts. Russian failure is only the most recent one among many.

    Secondly, Russia has set a national record for consecutive space launches without failure. Between October 2018 and present they achieved over 100 successful launches.

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