voyage to the red planet

In just a few months, the Institute of Cosmic Research, Russia's answer to NASA, will launch its biggest mission of the decade -- Mars '96, a complex multinational unmanned flight project that will yield one of the biggest caches of information yet accumulated about Earth's red neighbor.

It will coordinate machines that will fly in Mars' orbit, machines that will land on the planet's surface, machines that will burrow underground, machines that measure light, heat, and

X- and gamma rays.

It will measure almost everything a scientist studying the solar system could hope for -- except for one crucial question.

"It won't tell us anything about whether or not there was life on Mars," said Albert Galeyev, the director of the Russian Space Program, shaking his head. "If the Americans had made their discovery earlier, maybe we would have conceived some other experiments." But the time for that has passed.

The Mars '96 dilemma is typical of the misfortune the Institute of Cosmic Research, or IKI, has suffered since the glory days of the Soyuz and VEGA missions, headed by the legendary Roald Sagdeyev in the last decades of communism. While NASA has no less than 10 Mars missions in the works and this summer was busy announcing what it called "possibly the biggest scientific find of the century" -- the discovery of microbe fossils in a 4 million year-old Mars meteorite -- IKI has been hard put to stay not only in the news, but in existence, struggling with debilitating funding cuts and organizational problems.

Despite these setbacks, IKI is going to Mars on one of the most comprehensive planet missions in space history. Galeyev promises it will give a whole new view of the planet, a view that will influence how and if humans will ever land on its surface.

And even if Mars '96 won't look directly for signs of life, Galeyev says, the mission may well provide information that paves the way for future voyages focusing on such a search.

Why, if they aren't looking for life, did Russia spend a decade's worth of space exploration money on a project to Mars? What do they hope to find there? According to most scientists involved in the project, the key goal isn't to learn about Mars, but about Earth -- and what it is likely to turn into.

"The previous Mars missions, particularly Viking, convinced most scientists that there was no life on Mars and hadn't been," said Vasily Morozov, deputy science director of the project. "But, although that was true, those missions did find that Russia hundreds of millions of years ago had a warm climate and may even have had water flowing across its surface. And, if we can learn something about what happened there, we'll know something about Earth's evolution."

The Mars '96 project will measure the planet's chemical evolution using 23 instruments distributed on five separate vessels -- one small "orbiter" satellite, two small stations that will land on Mars' surface, and two spike-shaped "penetrators" that will crash into and through the planet's surface.

A spectrometer will measure the chemical composition of Martian rocks and determine the decay rate of organic matter on the planet, while meteorological instruments will measure wind velocity, temperature and other "weather" factors -- data that will be key to plans for any manned mission in the future.

These instruments are far more sophisticated than those of the original Mars project, the twin Viking missions which touched down on Mars in 1976. While that mission used rudimentary instruments to analyze surface soil and took simple photographs, the Mars '96 project will use machines that can measure chemical elements by spectrometers that track gamma rays emitted from the interaction of cosmic rays with elements in the Martian rocks.

While looking for life wasn't one of the mission's priorities, the instruments on the ground stations will provide data that will be critical to a "return" mission -- a mission that will send up robots to collect samples to be brought back to Earth. Scientists believe that, short of a manned mission, a successful return mission -- meaning the retrieval of a rock with demonstrable biological cell fossils -- is the only hope for confirming that life on Mars existed.

But before such a mission can be carried out, scientists first must determine a suitable place to land a sample-collecting robot. The ideal site would be what scientists call a "grab bag" area, full of many different types of rocks and minerals. Galeyev's mission will focus his small station and his penetrators mainly in former flood basins in the northern hemisphere, at a significant distance from the poles.

"These are all areas that would have been water rich and may very well have supported life," he said. "In light of the NASA discovery, it's important that we find a site that has a diverse geological surface."

The NASA discovery has definitely shaped the scientists' focus regarding the expected instrument readings. What they will not find are the three things that NASA found in its meteorite that led them to speculate about life on Mars -- complex organic compounds, mineral mixtures that resemble waste products of primitive microorganisms, and what appeared to be microbe fossils. For that, Galeyev said, you need to have the sample in your hands. "You can't find life without getting it under a microscope," he said. "We need a sample."

But data about the rate of organic decay, as well as some basic information about the types of elements found in the soil, may help scientists pick a site that is more likely than others to contain microbe-rich samples.

The hunt for a target site for a return mission isn't restricted to Russia's Mars '96 mission but, in this area, enthusiasm for cooperation between the United States and Russia appears to be tapering off.

Just one day before the Mars '96 stations are due to reach the planet on Sept. 12, 1997, the U.S. Global Surveyor mission will fall into a tight polar orbit around Mars to map the planet with high-resolution instruments.

Shortly afterward, another U.S. mission, the Pathfinder, will land and deposit a Mars rover into the Ares Vallis, the mouth of an ancient riverbed that Mars scientists say appears to be the ultimate grab bag site.

And later, in 1998, the spirit of Apollo-Soyuz will return in a small U.S.-Russian joint project called Mars Together. That mission will deploy a relatively large Russian-made Mars rover that will move along the Martian surface in search of what Morozov calls "cool stuff" to measure and analyze.

Neither Russian nor American scientists had planned a sample return mission before the year 2005, but since the NASA meteorite discovery there has been considerable support in the U.S. scientific community for moving up a joint U.S.-Russian return mission to 2003.

But, despite the rather extensive plans for U.S.-Russian cooperation in the upcoming years -- the Global Surveyor mission will even be helping, by means of instruments which radio signals as they bounce off elemental space particles called quarks, the Mars '96 vessel navigate into its orbit -- the two countries are not as close in their respective strategies as it may seem.

According to Jim Campbell, Mars Exploration Director at NASA's Jet Propulsion Institute, international cooperation is becoming increasingly problematic. "It is very difficult when you're dealing with two countries who have different philosophies and different ways of doing things," he said. "Sorting out all of these differences takes more time and, consequently, more money, so it's not necessarily feasible economically anymore. But, of course, there are benefits for the United States in cooperating with Russia."

Campbell said that one difference in Russian and American space philosophy is the engineering of their machines. America tends to try to make smaller, more efficient instruments and vessels, while Russia generally opts for building more powerful rockets and power supplies to compensate for the size of their hardware.

As a result, Russian machines burn more fuel and take more time to transmit messages than U.S. machines. But, on the other hand, the United States lacks boosters powerful enough to send large payloads all the way to Mars.

In that sense, cooperation with Russia would have some benefits, as the United States is anxious to use the Russian Proton booster, which is far more powerful than any analogous American rocket and will, due to the heavy payloads involved, almost inevitably be used in any return mission to Mars. "They can't do it without our rocket," said Galeyev. "So we'll be involved."

Campbell said, however, that the United States is using its spate of upcoming Mars missions to test technologies that might make it possible for the United States to do the historic return mission alone. "We don't have the big booster, but what we'll be working on in upcoming missions is making much lighter equipment and lighter boosters," he said. "If it works out, we may develop technology which will allow us to go without the Proton."

He also said that the plans for the Mars Together project are far from etched in stone. "We're having some discussions, in light of the new emphasis on looking for life, about changing that project somewhat," he said. "For one thing, we're not entirely sure that we want to land a Russian rover, or whether we want to put down a small station, or something of our own design."

Campbell said that a joint return mission may present a whole range of political and logistical problems. "There are all sorts of questions that need to be worked out," he said. "For instance, if we get a sample, who gets it when we come back? Also, how do we deal with the possibility of bringing back a contaminating substance? We might have standards which are different than the Russians'."

If the United States does develop technologies fast enough to go it alone from now on, Russia's space program may be left in the lurch. Apart from a return mission to Mars' moon Phobos that's tentatively planned for the year 2003, Mars '96 is the only all-Russian space mission planned for the next 10 years.

And without the joint missions with America, it may be completely out of the Mars race -- particularly since the United States may be too busy to lend a hand, as it has done with the navigation of the Mars '96 mission. Other nations that have contributed expertise included Japan, Germany and France.

"We were happy to help with the navigation for Mars '96, because, at the time we agreed in 1989, we had very few projects planned and had some free time," said Campbell. "But we may not have that opportunity next time."

If Mars '96 turns out to be Russia's last hurrah in the Mars race, it would just make for one more chapter in a checkered space research history that started off heroically, but has suffered from bad luck and worse politics in the decades ever since.

Russia's space history began with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957, which sent the Soviet Union into a frenzy of national pride and space race enthusiasm. But, in the midst of the excitement, research scientists were pushed to the rear of the decision-making command.

As a result, the hard-fought victory of Sputnik 1 was quickly erased by a disaster in Sputnik 3. Desperate to give communism a boost prior to the Italian parliamentary elections in the spring of 1958, Nikita Khrushchev ordered that the launch of Sputnik 3 -- the first purely scientific mission in the Russian space effort -- go ahead on schedule despite pleas from scientists for a delay to fix a broken flight recorder.

The flight went ahead, the Italian communists did well, but the flight recorder failed and there was no scientific harvest from the mission. Weeks later, an American satellite launch went up that yielded one of the major discoveries of the space race era -- the discovery of radiation belts around Earth.

The next big space milestones were, of course, the moon and Mars, and here Russia once again conceded the lead to the United States. Launches of unmanned modules to Mars began as early as 1960, but none of the seven Mars missions from then until 1972 reached Mars safely, as a greater part of the modules sent were part of premature and underfunded projects.

The Russians had planned a massive expenditure to get to the moon before the United States but, with the rapid success of the Apollo missions, they quickly dropped their plans. But the projects they invested in to replace the moon effort, the Apollo-Soyuz missions, were again chosen for their political value at the expense of science.

"To us scientists, these missions were a real sacrilege," wrote former IKI director Sagdeyev in his autobiography. "They had nothing to do with science. Contemplated as part of the d?tente package in 1972, it was meant to be a quick demonstration -- a handshake in space. It was something that could only be of interest to politicians."

Through a mighty battle with Party bureaucracy, Sagdeyev, who took over IKI around the time of the Apollo-Soyuz missions, managed to push Soviet space exploration into a more scientific direction. Realizing that the United States had allocated $800 million for the Viking project, more than eight times what IKI was willing to spend on a Mars mission, Sagdeyev convinced the Party leaders to drop Mars altogether and concentrate on Venus.

The Venera 9 and 10 missions in 1975 and 1976, in which the Soviets landed modules that survived the severe atmosphere on the surface of Venus for a full hour, were the first space breakthrough missions the Soviets had flown since Yury Gagarin's day. But the scientific community's brief success in recording data from the surface of Venus was quickly erased by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov in 1975, an event that focused the wrath of the Soviet Party machine on the scientific community.

For nearly 10 years afterward, a period that saw the launch of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, scientific space projects came to a halt in the Soviet Union. It was not until the successful VEGA mission to visit Halley's comet that Soviet space made headlines again. But soon afterwards, the Soviets sent two modules to pass by Phobos and lost them both -- a crushing financial and political blow for the new Gorbachev regime.

Phobos would be the last major Russian mission until Mars '96. Its Perestroika-era legacy was to bring Russia closer and closer to an era in which it depended on other countries to help complete its missions. In fact, it was partly the poor performance of the cumbersome Phobos communications instruments which led the Soviet Union to ask the United States for help with its navigation for Mars '96.

Now, in the 1990s, space science in Russia is staying alive in part because the raw mental power of Russia's scientists makes it nearly impossible for an international space research effort to go on without them.

But IKI's funding has been slashed to almost nothing, forcing Galeyev to cut staff. While he can't give exact figures, he said that the budget in some areas has not been adjusted for inflation in years, meaning that salaries for some top scientists are now as low as $100 a month.

As a result, the IKI scientific team, which once took some of the world's best minds in physics and engineering and brought them together in Moscow, has now been transformed into a staff in exile.

Scientists live and study abroad on grants from American and European universities and research institutes, leaving Galeyev in Moscow to coordinate the Mars '96 mission by fax and e-mail. "In the old days," he laughed, "a space mission around here meant a lot of people running around in the hallways. Now it's quiet -- except for the phone lines."

But, unless the country experiences a financial windfall or the political climate changes to make the space race a priority again, Russia may slip into the background of space exploration, and Mars '96 may end up being its last big planetary mission for a long while.

"We want to keep going," said Galeyev. "But, if we have no funding and no help, we will lose our enthusiasm for space. And I might get a vacation."