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Luna-25 Lander Renews Russian Moon Rush


Luna-25 Lander Renews Russian Moon Rush

There is a multicountry moon rush in progress. NASA is orchestrating the Artemis program of robotic and human lunar exploration, due to launch human explorers in 2024 at the earliest. China is preparing to hurl a sample-return mission to the moon this year, joining a Chinese lander and rover that are now on the lunar…

Luna-25 Lander Renews Russian Moon Rush

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“It is very exciting to anticipate Russia’s return to the moon,” says James Head, a space scientist at Brown University. Work on Luna-25 appears to be progressing well despite COVID-19, he says, with no work stoppages reported so far.

After nearly 45 years have lapsed since its last foray to the moon, the Russian space program seems ready to finally mount a return, says Brian Harvey, an independent space analyst and author who diligently tracks that program. “I have a sense that setting the date [of launch] was an attempt to force the issue and make sure it would happen—a psychological self-incentive, as it were.”

“Right off the bat, I have to snicker at the name Luna-25,” says Jay Gallentine, an independent space historian who is sharply focused on robotic solar system exploration. That designation makes it sound like the lander is the latest iteration of a continuous line of moon missions, he says, when, in fact, Luna-24, the previous venture, launched in 1976. Space experts blame the long lag between moon missions on a legacy of intermittent funding, as well as management and quality control issues. There is now a stronger, more effective direction from Russian top officials than at any time since 1991, Harvey says. “Partnering with ESA is a definite attempt to spread costs and bring stability,” he adds. “The Russians have always kept their side of a deal. And once they sign up for something with Europe, it will happen.”

Harvey says the Russians will work hard to get Luna-25 off the ground. “The things that might stop them would be if they uncovered problems during testing or rocket problems,” he says. “In the past couple of years, Russia has delayed missions when these things were not right. But this is a good thing, because they are applying quality control more effectively.”

Software reliability is Gallentine’s primary concern about the Luna-25 mission’s success. “History has shown that spacecraft designers always go through a post-launch period where they are learning how to operate the very machines they built. The Russians do not have a favorable track record with computers and software,” he emphasizes.

Corruption Quagmire

The stakes for Luna-25 are high, says Asif Siddiqi, a professor of history at Fordham University who studies Russian space exploration. “Luna-25 is quite paramount. If it fails, I think that will have a domino effect on many other things,” he says. Alternatively, if it is triumphant, the mission could pave the way for a new era in the country’s space program. The forthcoming Luna mission is the first demonstration of that program in a deep-space capacity in decades, Siddiqi says. “I think people are really nervous about it in that sense,” he adds.

Siddiqi cites a quagmire of mismanagement and corruption, along with Russian space ruminations that never match up with the needed rubles, for the long delay. “There’s such a hangover from the Soviet Union times that people are still living the dream of an amazing global space program. But resources and management just [aren’t] there,” he says. “Historically, Russia was a great space power. But there’s an awareness that that’s in the past.”


Leonard David

    Leonard David is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race (National Geographic, 2019) and Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet (National Geographic, 2016).

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