President Vladimir Putin (right) with General Vladimir Popovkin at the Voronezh Radar Station in a 2007 file photo (ITAR-TASS)

President Vladimir Putin (right) with General Vladimir Popovkin at the Voronezh Radar Station in a 2007 file photo (ITAR-TASS)

When all else fails – and your butt is on the line with a major PR catastrophe looming, it is best to man-up, square your shoulders and do your duty as organizational lead by assuming responsibility before The Big Guy…unless you are the head of Russia’s ROSKOSMOS space agency.  Then you can hint darkly about “sabotage”

Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin’s comments to state-backed daily “Izvestiya” echo a recent allegation by a retired Russian general who said a U.S. radar in Alaska might have emitted an electromagnetic burst to disable a mission to probe Mars’ moon Phobos in November.
“It’s not clear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are traveling through what for Russia is the ‘dark’ side of the Earth — in areas where we don’t see the craft and don’t receive its telemetry readings,” Popovkin reportedly told “Izvestiya.” “I don’t want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we can’t exclude.”

Never mind the fact that sloppy manufacturing, nonexistent quality assurance, much less configuration management might perhaps to be to blame?  Nope – easier to blame it on nefarious doings over on the dark side of the Bering Strait…

Just as the star-crossed BULAVA SLBM suffered a series of test failures stemming from absent quality controls and poor engineering design that caused a series of upper stage failures (finally corrected after a detailed autopsy of the design and manufacturing process), the PHOBOS-GRUNT mission was doomed by last minute modifications that were not part of the original design, poorly executed and with little, if any risk management applied.  The net result — when it came time to position the spacecraft to burn the thrusters setting it on path to Mars, they failed to start.  The satellite began to drift and when it was unable to orient itself to allow the solar panels to provide power to the spacecraft, it became so much space junk.  $5B rubles worth of space junk with over 7 tons of highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine used as fuel – and no means to conduct an intercept like the US did in 2008.  So, in a few days when Doc Newton is proven right (again) and Phobos-Grunt re-enters the atmosphere, there is a very real possibility some larger pieces may survive and make it all the way to the ground with the potential for property damage and personal injury.  The good news, if one wants to call it that, is that unlike that 2008 satellite which had been on orbit long enough for the hydrazine to freeze solid (and thereby improve chances of survival on re-entry), the odds are that isn’t in play here and most of the really toxic stuff will burn up in the upper atmosphere.

Still, in light of the other very public failures of multiple launches last year – including a failed ISS re-supply mission that forced a reduction in manning for the space station, questions are mounting regarding the direction and management of Russia’s space program, from outside as well as within:

In late November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hinted at the “need to carry out a detailed review” of the space program’s problems “and punish those guilty.”

Given that Popovkin’s appointment came about when his predecessor was fired over a failed SATCOM launch and in light of Medvedev’s hints of further punishments, perhaps it is understandable that the old chestnut of “sabotage” is trotted out – but the track record isn’t so good for others that have tried:

They were all disloyal. I tried to run the ship properly by the book, but they fought me at every turn. If the crew wanted to walk around with their shirttails hanging out, that’s all right, let them! Take the towline – defective equipment, no more, no less. But they encouraged the crew to go around, scoffing at me and spreading wild rumors about steaming in circles and then ‘Old Yellowstain.’ I was to blame for Lieutenant Maryk’s incompetence and poor seamanship. Lieutenant Maryk was the perfect officer, but not Captain Queeg. Ah, but the strawberries! That’s, that’s where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I would have produced that key if they hadn’t pulled the Caine out of action. I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. (He pauses – looks at all the questioning faces that stare back at him, and realizes that he has been ranting and raving.) Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory… (Caine Mutiny)

Vlad, in the interest of post-Cold War relations and the big red reset button, allow me to offer another time honored excuse rational explanation:

Yep — gremlins