On Friday 18 August, I was scheduled to write a piece about Russia’s first space mission to the moon for nearly 50 years, for publication on Monday morning. There had been much fanfare about the mission which nominally was to collect geo-samples from the moon’s South Pole. New tech, including a different angle on solar panels to take best advantage from the oblique angle of the sun on the part of the moon in question, had been trumpeted.
By late Saturday it was becoming clear, the “Luna-25” craft, launched nearly two weeks ago from Russia’s far eastern Amur region, had “spun out of control and crashed into the moon” according to Reuters, “underscoring the post-Soviet decline of a once mighty space programme.”
1. Deafening silence
Unlike the cheers and whoops that greeted the US and Elon Musk’s last failed Space X mission – which some argue is a sign of confidence in iterative development and the ability to “learn from mistakes” – there was an almost ashamed radio silence from Russia about the crash. State television put the crash news at number eight in their headlines, with only 26 seconds of coverage. Fires on Tenerife and holiday news for Russian airlines were considered more important apparently.
The avoidance of direct eye contact with the matter-at-hand was toe-curling and only seemed to underline how embarrassingly far its once-glorious Cold War space programme (which El Pais points out scored three space firsts) had fallen.
2. “Ceased to exist”
“The apparatus moved into an unpredictable orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the surface of the Moon,” Roskosmos (Russia’s state space corporation) said in a statement.
An inter-departmental commission has been formed to investigate the reasons for the failure. Adding to the humiliation in some onlookers’ eyes, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) posted on Musk’s X, formerly Twitter, that their competitor mission, Chandrayaan-3, was still on course and set to land on 23 August 2023.
3. Last hope?
“It is so sad that it was not possible to land the apparatus,” Mikhail Marov, a veteran Soviet physicist and astronomer said of the Luna-25 failure. He told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, “This was perhaps the last hope for me to see a revival of our lunar program.”
Marov was reportedly admitted to in hospital in Moscow for unexplained reasons after news of the crash became public knowledge.
4. A front too far
Russia is fighting both western sanctions and, in Ukraine, its largest military land campaign since World War two. It is widely recognised that Russia helped defeat Nazism in Europe by making Hitler fight on multiple brutal fronts. Now the question arises, is the space race just a front too far for Russia right now, after not attempting a moonshot since 1976, when Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev – a name from a seemingly bygone era – ruled the Kremlin.