by Igor Serebryany, Zheng Haoning
Moscow (XNA) Dec 20, 2011
After the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet, the only way for astronauts to reach the International Space Station (ISS) is by Russia's Soyuz spacecraft until at least 2015. However, as one of the leading countries in space exploration, Russia suffered serious setbacks in 2011.
Human beings have never stopped observing and thinking about the outer space. But their space exploration programs have taught them that they still face a long, rough road to unlock more secrets of the universe.
Russia's Ambitious Plans
Yuri Gagarin, who made the first manned space flight on April 12, 1961, and orbited Earth for 108 minutes before landing safely, introduced "space" to humankind.
After the Cold War, Moscow was determined to maintain its keen interest in space exploration.
In 2011, Russia allocated some 75.8 billion rubles (2.45 billion U.S. dollars) for its space programs, 13 percent more than in 2010.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced in April that the country should conduct half of the world's space launches, up from the current share of 40 percent. He even revealed that Russia has been developing nuclear engines for expeditions to the Moon and other planets.
In June, when the last U.S. space shuttle completed its mission to the ISS, Russia's space agency Roscosmos proudly announced that "the era of the reliable (Russian spaceship) Soyuz has begun."
The country has also made public its plans to build a brand-new spacecraft to replace the Soyuz by 2015 and a new cosmodrome in the Amur region in the Far East.
Besides, some 13 countries have used Russian rockets to put their satellites into orbit.
The growth of Russia as a space power is recognized even by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as NASA has decided to make the Russian language a basic knowledge for astronaut trainees.
"Russia has preserved and even strengthened its leading position in space explorations," President Dmitry Medvedev said in June.
Difficult Year For Russian Space Industry
The failed launch of a Proton-M rocket carrying a high-power Express AM4 communications satellite on Aug. 18 embarrassed the Russian space authorities, as the Protons have been Russia's "shire horse" to orbit domestic and foreign spacecraft.
Only a week later, a Progress M-12M cargo ship also failed to reach the ISS due to a rocket malfunction, leaving the station crew in a difficult situation because of supply shortages. The failure of the Progress cargo ship was the first in more than 30 years.
The latest and most widely reported setback was the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars that carried China's micro-satellite Yinghuo-1.
The Mars mission components were launched atop a Russian Zenit-2SB rocket on Nov. 9, but failed to reach the intended orbit.
Putin has boasted that Russia ranks fourth in the world in terms of funding its national space programs, but the failures showed that problems can come from other aspects.
Russian experts agreed that the troubles behind the continuous mishaps were not entirely technological.
"Generally, 1 percent of the failed launches is considered within a technical norm in the space industry," Igor Lisov, a prominent Russian space expert, told Xinhua.
In a globalized world, the alarms have sounded not only for Russia but also for other countries involved in space exploration.
Local analysts say that the human element has put the entire international program at risk as exemplified by the failure of the Progress M-12M.
Long Road To Space
Space technology now is more closely connected with people and affects their daily lives more directly. Nowadays, one just cannot imagine life without satellite TV or GPS.
"Early romanticism and the space race have gone. Countries have been replaced by business-oriented cooperation in the recent decades," Pavel Vinogradov, deputy head of the Space Flight Center in the Energy Rocket-Space Corporation, told Xinhua.
Experts said the scale and costs of space exploration require massive international cooperation.
"Space programs have been more money-thirsty even than military programs, so the nations seek closer cooperation, and this pays off," Vinogradov said.
Moreover, people need to "think big" despite the difficulties of space exploration, experts said.
Before the launch of the Phobos-Grunt on Nov. 9, Lev Zelyony, director of Russia's Space Research Institute, said Roscosmos had undertaken a risky mission to Mars because the country "needs some large-scale projects."
"The people, the state must think big," Zelyony said.
Boris Chertok, a spacecraft designer and member of Russia's Academy of Sciences, pointed out that Russia has lost its qualified workforce in the space industry as older professionals retire with few younger workers and engineers available to replace them.
"The government must make space exploration interesting for the youth," Chertok said.
Source: Xinhua News Agency
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