Editorial: Quality Control, Not Conspiracy Theories

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The Jan. 15 atmospheric re-entry of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, which suffered a malfunction shortly after its November launch and never made it out of low Earth orbit, closed the book on a star-crossed year for a storied space program that saw two failures of the venerable Soyuz rocket and one each of the Proton and Rockot vehicles.

This followed a 2010 that ended with reprimands and firings at the highest levels of the Russian space establishment after a Proton failure that destroyed a trio of Glonass navigation satellites. That mishap was attributed to an upper-stage fueling error.

The rash of mishaps has raised questions about the condition of the nation’s space industrial complex, which still ranks among the world’s largest. Vladimir Popovkin, director of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was quoted in Russian media outlets recently as saying the industry was in “crisis,” especially in rocket engines, an area where it traditionally excels.

Then came a series of unfortunate and highly dubious suggestions by Mr. Popovkin and at least one senior colleague that Russia’s space program might have been victimized by foreign saboteurs and that Phobos-Grunt was possibly crippled by a powerful radar blast from a U.S. ground facility in the Pacific. These officials are no doubt disappointed and somewhat embarrassed by recent events, but insinuating foul play with no supporting evidence only reflects poorly on Roscosmos, a key partner on the international space station and various other cooperative endeavors.

As everyone involved is painfully aware, space is a high-cost, high-risk and stubbornly unforgiving enterprise. During the late 1990s, the United States experienced a disastrous string of launch failures resulting in the loss of billions of dollars worth of national security satellite hardware and prompting a sweeping review of the nation’s launch enterprise. On the civil side, meanwhile, NASA experienced back-to-back failures of Mars probes.

The U.S. failures in almost every instance were attributed to systems engineering, software and workmanship errors. In response, the U.S. Defense Department stepped up its quality control oversight of launch activity and has logged a stellar track record in satellite launches ever since. It’s a good bet that similar quality control issues were behind Russia’s recent failures and that a Roscosmos-led overhaul of industry’s mission-assurance processes is in order.

Russia is the sole means of crew access to the space station and an important player in the commercial satellite launch industry, particularly with the Proton and Soyuz vehicles. These rockets also are used to launch international scientific payloads; Roscosmos is being asked to supply a Proton rocket for a European Mars orbiter whose U.S. launch has fallen through due to budget constraints.

NASA, commercial satellite operators and the Western companies that market Russian rockets continue to show confidence in their reliability, in part because each provides its own layer of oversight. But the entire space industry would breathe just a bit easier if Roscosmos would redouble its own efforts in this area and leave suggestions of sabotage to the conspiracy theorists.