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Review: Soviet Robots in the Solar System

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Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries
by Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov
Springer Praxis, 2011
softcover, 467 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4419-7897-4

By 1970, the Soviet Union had lost the most notable event in the space race: the manned trip to the Moon. Yet, in the next three years, from August 1970 through January 1973, the Soviet Union put robotic landers on the Moon, Mars, and Venus. During that time they achieved the first (and only) automated lunar sample returns, the first (and only) automated lunar rovers, the first landing on Venus, and the first lander (and rover) on Mars. The story of Soviet planetary exploration is hardly known in Russia today, let alone in the West. I am amazed to meet young people working in the space program, even in Russia, who have no knowledge of these missions or the amazing technology—for its time—that went into them.

The story of Soviet planetary exploration is hardly known in Russia today, let alone in the West.

Even today, few realize that the Soviet Union and Japan are the only two countries who have carried out automated sample return from a planetary surface. Now, the Russians are about to attempt another sample return and once again seek a new first in planetary exploration: a Phobos sample return mission. Their long-awaited mission, Phobos-Grunt, is scheduled to launch in early November.

Anyone interested in planetary exploration should read the new book by Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov, titled Soviet Robots in the Solar System. In addition to serving as a valuable catalog of all Soviet lunar and planetary missions, it is a remarkable description of a remarkable story.

Despite having lived through it, I still find it amazing to realize how many missions were launched and failed before successes were finally achieved. Today, without the impetus of the geopolitical space race, we are not so resistant to failure. Dozens of Soviet (and many American) missions failed in their first attempts to reach the Moon, Mars, and Venus, and yet each failure was met by determination and willingness to try again—at least until the end of the Cold War.

Huntress and Marov chronicle these endeavors in wonderful detail. As an overview, the book is a compelling story of failure and triumph. In its details, it is a compendium of history that becomes a vital part of the annals of exploration.

The authors are not historians or reporters; they are major players in planetary exploration. Huntress started out as a planetary scientist specializing in atmospheres and became the leader of Earth’s exploration of other worlds as NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science (and is currently chair of the NASA Advisory Council’s Space Science Committee). Marov, also a planetary scientist but in the Soviet program, was an early leader of planetary missions who worked with the famed Academician Keldysh defining the Soviet space program.

It took me quite awhile to get used to the rhythm of the book. It methodically describes people, spacecraft, missions, and scientific results, and, consequently, information is often repeated even as each area proceeds chronologically. At first that confused me, but, after enough examples, it all clicked into place, and I realized seeing some of the same information in different contexts was very helpful. While the book is not light reading, it does go through decades of history at a fast enough pace to capture the spirit and adventure of Soviet space development. It is a valuable reference for anyone in the space program. Huntress and Marov stick to the facts, but, even so, the drama and audacity of the many ventures comes through.

It is a testimony to the old Soviet audaciousness that they are even trying such a complex mission as Probos sample return as the first one since the end of the Soviet Union.

The build-up to the Soviet “Mars Campaign” of 1973 is exciting, even while presenting a huge amount of detail about each of the spacecraft. Four major missions were sent to Mars in 1973 in an attempt to one-up the Americans before Viking, and all four failed. At the Planetary Society, we learned about the small stepping rover the Russians had sent to Mars on their 1971 and 1973 missions when we were working 20 years later to convince NASA to add a rover on to their then planned Pathfinder mission.

In the 1980s, it appeared NASA might give up on planetary exploration altogether—no missions were launched from 1978 to 1989—while the Soviet Union appeared to be roaring ahead. They collected the first color pictures from the surface of Venus, the first radar mapping on a planet (also Venus), and the first flyby of a comet nucleus (Halley’s Comet). Each of these achievements was both a technological and a scientific accomplishment. Their details provide a fascinating story of planetary exploration.

Because of the Soviet, and now Russian, approach of building incrementally on their efforts, as opposed to the American approach of starting each mission and spacecraft design anew, this history book has a great deal of relevance today. The recently launched RadioAstron and soon to be launched Phobos sample return mission have heavy heritage from the spacecraft described in the book. Even the new upper stage Fregat, now being used on the Soyuz launch vehicle for many missions, has a heritage going back to the early Soviet Mars probes.

The authors present the Soviet step-by-step willingness to keep flying after failures. At Mars, they launched spacecraft components with a high probability of failure, because they viewed it as merely a step for future missions. The missions indeed failed, and they indeed tried again. At Venus they stripped out science from the payload to overdesign the lander, because they knew they would add the science to a later mission once they had better knowledge of the planetary environment.

The willingness to accept partial failure as a prelude to better future missions was something new to me when I first started working with Russian aerospace engineers. The Phobos 1988 mission experience still sticks with me. While we Americans were bemoaning the loss of the spacecraft in orbit around Mars before its planned rendezvous with Phobos, engineers from the spacecraft team were feeling pretty good about their longest lived and most successful Mars mission ever and believed they would improve it next time. But the Soviet era ended and now “next times” are far fewer: it will be 23 years from Phobos 1988 to Phobos-Grunt.

I have no idea how well the Phobos sample return mission will work. It is a testimony to the old Soviet audaciousness that they are even trying such a complex mission as the first one since the end of the Soviet Union. Considering the difficulties, it is hard to bet on complete mission success, but I expect the mindset of many of us is to accept that even partial success could rejuvenate the Russian program to again seek new missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus—if not farther.