Space missions take years of meticulous planning. It’s a delicate mathematical balancing act to blast anything out of the gravity of the Earth and into the cosmos. Not to mention they can cost incredible amounts of money. So when you hear what went wrong with a recent Russian launch, you’re going to be shocked.
When the Space Race first began in the Cold War, for the longest time the Soviets were leading. It began more than half a century ago in the 1950s. On August 2, 1955, the U.S.S.R. responded to the United States’ declaration a few days earlier that it was going to launch its first satellites. The Soviet Union replied in kind, and the first part of the race had begun.
Just over two years later, the Soviet Union became the first country to follow up its boast. Sputnik 1 was the first satellite in space in October 1957. Less than four years later, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. For a time it looked like it would be the U.S.S.R. that dominated the heavens, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.
In July 1969, the Americans landed the first humans on the Moon. While the U.S.S.R. had tried, it never managed it. Instead it decided to focus on building its own space stations orbiting Earth. In the ’70s, the two sides began cooperating, and after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in the early ’90s, Russians and Americans worked together to try and conquer the stars.
The Space Race certainly left its mark on the skies above us, filling the orbit of the Earth with satellites and the International Space Station. But its effects can also be felt back on the ground. Several technological innovations can trace their lineage to the extra education and research spending that came along with the race.
After a few quiet years at the turn of the century, Russian space exploration has kicked off again. And at the heart of that new drive is a site known as Vostochny. Interestingly though, while the location offers state of the art facilities, it accidentally played a huge part in the recent loss of satellites launched from there on a Soyuz-2-1b rocket.
The Vostochny Cosmodrome is in the far east of Russia. It’s in Amur Oblast, located in the Svobodny and Shimanovsk districts. In Russian, vostochny means eastern. This particular location was chosen for a number of reasons, not least because of the sparse population of the region, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. That allows rockets to jettison their lower stages safely.
You won’t be surprised to find out that Vostochny is one of the most expensive space centers ever built. The Kennedy Space Center, which is in Florida in the United States, cost about $2 billion to make. Vostochny, on the other hand, cost about $7.5 billion. When you look at the list of things the center contains, it’s not hard to see why.
You see, the site covers more than 260 square miles. That includes the space center, an airport and a nearby town called Tsiolkovsky. The plan is to turn the town into a hub for technology close to the launch sites. But there’s even more to the site than that, such as a 1,600-ton service tower and a command point with more than 40 miles of cables.
But despite all of the technology, construction and money that went into Vostochny, it hasn’t been without its problems. In April 2016, the first launch was scheduled to take place from the center. But a technical problem saw it postponed by a day, much to the embarrassment of Roscosmos, which runs the center and had invited Russian head honcho Vladimir Putin to the event.
Furthermore, that glitch pales in comparison to the one that happened in November 2017. A rocket blasted off from the site. On board was a million-dollar weather satellite known as Meteor-M. Alongside it were 18 other smaller satellites from commercial concerns that were built in places as far afield as Japan and Sweden.
To begin with everything seemed to be going well. But when Roscosmos tried to make contact with the orbiting rocket, they found that it wasn’t where it should have been. At first the scientists at Vostochny thought that there had been a problem with the last part of the rocket’s booster system, known as the Fregat.
But the deeper they looked into the missing rocket, the less likely that seemed. In fact, the real culprit was human error. You see, Vostochny isn’t the only cosmodrome that Russia uses. The other one, which is called Baikonur, is in Kazakhstan, on Russia’s western border.
Baikonur has an impressive history of space launches. Both Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the Earth, and Vostok 1, which carried the first man into space, were launched from there. But part of the reason for Vostochny’s construction was to lessen the Russian space program’s reliance on Baikonur.
But it appears that old habits die hard. Scientists soon realized that the problem with the Meteor-M rocket was nothing to do with the spacecraft. Instead, it had to do with the programming that had been entered into the guidance system. The launch was from Vostochny, but the programmers told the rocket that it was setting off from somewhere else.
In fact, it was programmed as though it was launching from Baikonur. The coordinates that the rocket was meant to be blasting off from, were actually in another country thousands of miles away. It’s pretty easy to see why the rocket went missing. Spaceflight is an incredibly complex thing, and setting off from the wrong place will throw everything out of whack.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin released a statement claiming laying out the claims. In the statement, quoted in The Guardian, Rogozin said, “The rocket was really programmed as if it was taking off from Baikonur. They didn’t get the coordinates right.” Roscosmos put it in slightly less damning terms.
The Russian space agency released a statement of its own, blaming “imperfection of the software algorithms of the control system.” It then added that, “All this in aggregate contributed to the fact that the factors, the combination of which led to an abnormal completion of the mission, remained undetected in preparation for launch.” Read between the lines, and it’s a pretty similar story.
However it’s worded, the result is the same. All the satellites that the rocket was carrying are now lost. The Meteor-M, which cost almost $45 million to make, was meant to conduct a five-year mission, making readings for the Russian weather agency. Whether another satellite is going to be launched to replace the Meteor-M isn’t clear.
But that’s not the end of the story for the scientists and programmers who made the mistake in the first place. In the statement released by Roscosmos, the space agency was harsh in its condemnation. It said, “For improper performance by the leaders of the duties assigned to them, the commission recommended that disciplinary sanctions be imposed on them in the form of reprimands.”