From 'The Sun', Flagstaff, Arizona, Sunday, April 16, 1989.
By Paul Sweitzer, Sun Staff Reporter.
SOVIET FAILURES COULD HURT MARS QUEST:
American scientists are carefully watching for signs of direction in the Soviet Union's space program after failures of two unmanned efforts to probe the Martian satellite Phobos.
The last of two attempted Russian probes of Phobos has been lost, Soviet space scientists announced late last month. The Soviets said they lost radio contact with Phobos 2 days before it was to land on the Martian satellite. Phobos 1 was lost in the summer of 1988 when a technician apparently threw a wrong switch and simply shut the probe down.
Soviet hopes for launching a long term exploration of Mars were pinned on Phobos 2, which began experiencing malfunctions and the was completely lost from contact in the last week of March.
On March 29, Soviet space officials announced that Phobos 2 was " 99 percent lost for good."
Two leading space scientists based in Flagstaff are among the Americans watching with interest to see what direction the Soviet space program will take. Further, they'll be watching the development of a whole new set of political and social concerns inside the USSR.
Hugh Kieffer and Laurence Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Astrogeology in Flagstaff feel the two losses are a definite setback to Soviet hopes for mounting long-term Marian exploration through the remainder of this century. It is exploration which would have culminated with a manned landing on the red planet sometime in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Soderblom, who had been working with French scientists on an experimental package on the lost Phobos flight and who had a tentative invitation to put an experiment on a future Russian Mars flight, feels the past Soviet attitude toward space has been severely altered as a result of internal political changes.
Kieffer agrees, saying in former times the Soviets merely would have stepped up their efforts to reach Mars in the wake of the failure. Today, he says, the Soviet population has more Earthbound concerns and the space program may suffer a setback, at least in terms of time.
Almost five years ago, the Soviets began unveiling plans for an ambitious program of Mars exploration in private meetings with American space scientists. AMericans were being quietly urged to take steps to join their own country with that program.
In a 1987 visit to FLagstaff, two leading Soviet space scientists, Alexander Basilevsky and Neon Armand, gave broad details of the program in an appearance before faculty and students in the geology department at Northern Arizona University. That marker the first time the Soviets had discussed the program publicly, wither inside or outside their own country.
The Soviet plan called for Martian flights possibly every two years and certainly every four years -- times when Mars would be in the favorable opposition to Earth -- through the end of this century. Exploration of Phobos -- known as "the moon of mars" -- is a critical part of that program, since the satellite possibly would be used as a launching platform for the final, manned flight to the red planet.
Soderblom says there is a feeling in the American space science community the Russians were in too much of a hurry; the two satellites lost were launched without much thought to a system of checks and balances that might have prevented such problems.
American scientists also point out that the USSR -- while having what amounts to tremendous success in exploration of Venus -- have had a long, frustrating line of failures where Mars is concerned.
"I'm hopeful that the Russians will continue with their steady, progressive effort in space exploration," Keiffer says. "But they have a new set of national concerns that may make that difficult."
Soderblom agrees. He points out that recent political concerns in the Soviet Union -- ethnic and national identity, a new political liberalization -- may make the usual relentless exploration of space impossible for Soviet leaders.
"With the new political freedom in the Soviet Union," Soderblom says, "the leader are liable to become more reactionary and liberal than in the past."
Soderblom and Kieffer both say the new political freedom in Russia is likely to lead more to concentration on the quality of life on Earth rather than on the exploration of space.
Kieffer says that because of recent agreements to exchange space information with the U.S., the Soviets no longer perceive Americans as competitors in space exploration. The loss of that sense of competition, he says, could also cause the Soviets to delay their Mars program.
Kieffer points out both America and the Soviet Union spend relatively little on space exploration, when compared, for example, to what is spent on defense by both countries. In the Soviet Union, he says, the people now might perceive the program as being too expensive, as do many people in the U.S.
He is quick to add, however, that the space programs of both countries probably have more unspoken popular support than political leaders on both sides have perceived.