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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mars Probe Crash Rocks Space Effort

Russian space scientists were left to count the cost and go back to the drawing board Monday after a weekend accident in which a Russian rocket carrying a historic mission to Mars veered out of control and crashed into the south Pacific.

Already two years behind schedule due to funding problems, the failure of the Mars '96 launch dealt a massive blow to hopes of restoring the Russian space program to its former glory.

"We've put seven years' work into this," said Nikolai Ivanov, head of the main operational group controlling the mission. "I cannot begin to describe how it feels."

Added to this despondency is the cost of the ill-fated mission, put at $300 million by Russian Space Agency officials at a press conference Monday.

The figure includes about $180 million worth of equipment placed on board the 6.8-ton probe by 20 other countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France.

Foreign scientists were similarly stunned by the sudden destruction of their efforts, particularly in the British camp, where scientists are still smarting from the explosion of the European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rocket last Spring which consumed millions of dollars of British experiments.

"We lost 10 years of work just like that," said David Southward of Imperial College London Sunday. "It's a tremendous blow to us. I don't know what could come out of the ashes of Mars '96."

Since this equipment was carried for free, however, the Russian Space Agency does not think Russia will be held financially liable for the loss of other nations' scientific investment, "although of course it's painful for us that they've spent it for nothing," said Yury Milov, the agency's deputy director.

Scheduled to reach the red planet on Sept. 12 next year, Mars '96 was the second of three planned missions to Mars within a month. The United States launched one robot voyage Nov. 7 and a second is due to blast off Dec. 2. The object of all three missions is to check for signs of water on the planet, which will help to determine whether there was once life on Mars.

The rocket took off at 20:49 GMT Saturday from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in optimal weather conditions. Two hours later, however, a fourth stage booster, intended to power the module out of the Earth's orbit, failed to function for as long as expected.

Russian scientists then lost control over the rocket, which, together with its precious payload, came crashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Easter Island on Sunday morning at a speed of 27,200 kilometers an hour. Earlier reports that the rocket would come down over Australia caused momentary panic there.

The launch failure is an indisputable setback to the reputation of the Russian space complex as a whole, but independent analysts said it was unlikely to stop future development completely.

The complex consists of three main areas: military, the commercial and scientific. Despite Saturday's scientific disaster and question marks over the other half from foreign investment in launch operations. Customers include national governments such as India, as well as telecommunications companies and meteorological organizations.

"The commercial sector was clearly not responsible for the [Mars '96] failure," said Tarasenko. "Two commercial satellites were launched [for foreign clients] this year, and both were successful. If one of those had failed, that would have been far more damaging."

This opinion is echoed by a statement issued Monday by the international communications provider Eutelsat, confirming the company's intention to continue doing business with Russia despite the launch failure.

Conceding that there was "always some risk" attached to space launches, Eutelsat general director Jean Grenier restated his company's confidence in Russia's space industry in a meeting Monday with Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Bolshakov.

At Monday's conference Russian Space Agency general director Yury Koptev announced that between now and the year 2000 Russia would launch payloads worth about $1 billion in 60 joint projects.

Although Russian space officials conceded Monday that the loss of the probe was a terrible blow, they said they intended to continue the space exploration program.

"Let us not forget that space exploration remains a very risky business, and planetary missions are among the most complex," said agency head Milov, adding that he saw no reason why the reputation of Russian science should be compromised after the failure of the probe.

The agency said the Russian space program would now concentrate on astrophysical research, staging three already scheduled missions within the next four to five years, and that depending on finances, a new Mars mission could be staged at the end of 2000 or early in 2001.

?A senior Russian cosmonaut was dropped from the first U.S.-Russian crew bound for NASA's planned international space station as a struggle over which nation will command the orbiting outpost neared its end, U.S. space agency officials said.

Space flight veteran Anatoly Solovyev was a member of the first crew assigned to the planned space station, along with U.S. astronaut William Shepherd and another Russian cosmonaut.

But earlier this month the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was told that Solovyev would not fly and cosmonaut Yury Gidzenko, who has completed just one space flight, would take his place. Solovyev flew aboard the U.S. shuttle Atlantis during its first visit to the Russian orbital outpost, Mir, where he commanded four missions.

Solovyev's sudden departure came as NASA and the Russian Space Agency neared the conclusion of delicate negotiations concerning who will command the jointly-owned and operated station.

U.S. space agency officials said they had recently reached a verbal agreement with their Russian counterparts that Shepherd would command the flight once the crew arrived at the station. However, NASA was still waiting for written confirmation.

A three-member crew is to be launched to the station in May 1998 aboard a Russian Soyuz spaceship. Construction of the station is scheduled to begin in November 1997 with the launch of a Russian-built, U.S.-financed module.