Russia has, of course, long been a space program powerhouse. Sergei Korolev and his team racked up an impressive lists of "firsts" in the early days of the Cold War and the space race: Russia was the first to orbit a man-made satellite, the Sputnik, Russia was the first to orbit living creatures, and later, a man, and successfully return him to Earth. Russia was the first to put a woman into space. Russian probes stretched out across the heavens to the Moon, to Venus, to Mars. And Russia has maintained, to this day, a reliable stable of "workhorses" of heavy-lift launch vehicles, and continues - along with the European Space Agency - to be laying the careful steps of manned space missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.
But recent events - such as the recent failure of a Russian Mars probe - have set that country's space program back. Make no mistake, as President Dmitri Medvedev said a few weeks ago, Russia intends to maintain a vigorous manned and unmanned presence in space as part of its national interest. So setbacks or no, budgetary problems or no, Russia, unlike its short-sighted American counterpart, intends to stay in space.
All that said, the head of Russia's space program recently suggested that the string of failures that has affected that nation's space posture might not be entirely accidental:
I hope you caught the implications of those first few lines:
"Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told the Izvestia daily he could not understand why several launches went awry at precisely the moment the spacecraft were travelling through areas invisible to Russian radar.
"'It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are travelling through what for Russia is the 'dark' side of the Earth -- in areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings,' he said.
"'I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude,' Popovkin told the daily."
Now on the face of it, this seems to me to begging a few questions. First, the idea that there is a "dark side" of the Earth blind to Russia seems on the face of it to be absurd. Russia, like the USA, has laced the globe with a network of spy satellites, and it is inconceivable that the Russian government would not have a similar network of communications satellites simply for defense purposes if nothing else. The idea that Russia would have a space program where its manned and unmanned probes are not able to receive telemetry readings is equally absurd. And Mr. Popovkin is not a stupid man. He knows this.
And we should too. Which leaves the question of why he would say such patently absurd things. In my opinion, he is sending messages to an unknown "someone" that Russia is aware - probably much more aware than it is letting on - that its space probes are being sabotaged. The question is, who?
We have two possible logical answers: (1) someone off this planet is doing it, or (2) someone on this planet is doing it. And both, when one thinks about it, are equally problematic. Let's take the second option. If it's someone on earth, political expediency would seem to rule out China - after all, China got much of its basic space technology from Russia,updated a bit with American and European technology. India, long a country close to Russia, would similarly seem unlikely to risk such a venture. The Europeans would hardly sabotage a program with which their own is becoming increasingly entangled, and add to that the growing closer economic ties between Europe (read Germany) and Russia. So again, Europe would seem an unlikely source. Then there's the USA. Clearly, the USA, like China or Europe, has a vast array of "countermeasures" that it could deploy against Russia, and it may even have a motivation to deny Russia access to Mars and any hidden data that it knows about. But nonetheless, such a venture is risky at best, and Russian satellite capabilities would surely pick up enough evidence to at least strongly indicate any culprit.
And that's the point: Russia has that capability, and likely has some idea already of who did it. Which leaves the first alternative. Again, the question is, who? ET? Some unknown off-world human black space project gone rogue and independent? Well, possibly, but if that's the case, then Russia isn't talking. But rest assured, there's a lot more to this story than meets the eye, and Russia isn't, for the moment, saying all that it knows.