The word failure is sticking in my craw. Certainly, we failed to achieve the objective of Cosmos 1: we did not achieve solar-sail flight. But I don’t think, with all we have done, that I can call Cosmos 1 a failure.
What’s so excruciatingly frustrating is that we were done in by a launch vehicle failure. Our spacecraft never got a chance even to try. But we chose to launch on the Volna, and we take responsibility for that.
People keep asking me how I feel. Because I first became involved with solar sailing 30 years ago, they think that some dream of mine has now been destroyed. But, I am not about dreams, nor technologies, no matter how sweet. Rather, I want to make space missions happen, to shape the future – so you might think that I should be even more “bummed out.” After all, solar sailing is in our future; the Cosmos 1 mission is now in our past.
Surprisingly, I am not bummed out. I expected to be. Secretly, not sharing with anyone, I thought that if this mission failed I would come back devastated and in a mood to give it up. So, at about 20:25 GMT on 21 June when it became evident that something had gone gravely wrong with the mission, I waited for the depression to set in. Instead, I got caught up in the immediacy of the situation, and now, four days afterward, I am more focused on what we did, what we still are doing, and what we might do in the future than I am with regret about what might have been.
I’ve now been involved with three missions that ended in Russian launch failures: Mars 96 was failed by a Proton and our solar sail project suffered two Volna failures. But this was the first launch failure that was evident in real-time. After the 20-minute launch phase went by with just a single sentence of report, when we were expecting nearly minute-by-minute updates, we knew something must have gone wrong. The one sentence, coming two minutes after launch, was “Confirm first-stage separation.” That report is now significant because a half-hour or so later, Evgeniy Kulagin, the Flight Control Manager, came over and said it was an error— first-stage separation never occurred. And later yet, we learned that the Russian space agency (RKA), acting on information from the Makeev Rocket Design Bureau (the Volna’s manufacturer), had issued a statement saying that no stages separated and the whole launch vehicle, plus spacecraft, flew on a much-shortened trajectory into the Barents Sea.
The issue of whether or not the Volna’s stages separated is the critical one for resolving the differing reports about what happened to our spacecraft.
At first, we were also told that the portable tracking stations in Petropavlosk, Kamchatka and Majuro in the Marshall Islands received no signals. That seemed to be the end of it. Jim Cantrell reported from Project Operations Pasadena (POP) that the US Strategic Command also saw nothing. But soon my colleague, Slava Linkin of the Space Research Institute, the payload and electronics leader of the project, reported that Oleg Andreyev (a member of his group at IKI who was in charge of the portable station in Kamchatka) said that Doppler data (tracking information about the speed and position of the spacecraft) was recorded in Kamchatka. Then, as we were driving home at 4 am Moscow time, Jim Cantrell called me on my cell phone from our POP room and said that Viktor Kerzhanovich had indeed received a signal in Majuro – a very weak one that was not noticed on the frequency meter, but was contained within the data recorded. When we called the team at the Tarusa station, who were in charge of orbit tracking, they told us that the Czechs at the Panska Ves station had also received a signal.
The mystery of the signals received from a spacecraft reported to be at the bottom of the sea has occupied us since. The Russian military and space agency are firm that the entire rocket and spacecraft went down together. But then, what were those signals in the data recorders? They are now being analyzed by Dr. Linkin’s group, the Czech tracking group, and The Planetary Society project operations group. There seems to be some indication that the spacecraft was injected into a low orbit, one that would quickly decay and cause the spacecraft to fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. We hope to have more to say about that within several days.
As we were planning our mission, we spent a lot of time thinking about the value of creating an extra portable ground station and taking it to Majuro in the South Pacific for only seven minutes of work during the first orbit. Working out the logistics of a quick trip to the Marshall Islands was not easy. Later, we added the Panska Ves tracking station in the Czech Republic to the project. Those decisions turned out to be correct and valuable. So, too, was the effort made by Jim Cantrell and his POP team, and Vladimir Nazarov and his MOM (Mission Operations Moscow) team, to facilitate and enable rapid data handling in the mission. I would not feel so comfortable with any conclusion we make if it weren’t both coordinated and independently reviewed by these two teams.
There are a lot of acknowledgements to make and individuals to thank. We’ll do that later. Right now, I do want to single out two of our team: Vladimir Gotlib in Russia, who lost his wife to illness less than a month ago and suffered a car accident on the way to a final test of tracking equipment at the Bear Lakes station near Moscow; and Greg Delory of the University of California, Berkeley, Space Science Laboratory who is getting married in August. They remind us how much of our lives are invested in the work of creating a space mission, and how that work affects our personal lives. Even when the mission is not accomplished, they—and everyone involved—can take solace in the pride of what they did and the value of their effort.
So right now, I am not thinking about what might have been. What we did is not bad. We built the first solar-sail spacecraft. There is even a chance it got to orbit in working condition and ready for its mission. We created an international partnership with very limited resources. We conducted the first space mission by a privately funded space-interest group. We tested the notion of private funding for space ventures based on the idea that they have exciting stories to tell. We built a private partnership with a science-based entertainment company, Cosmos Studios – a partnership based on shared vision of the value of exploration. We engaged national space agencies – notably NASA – won their respect, and spurred on their programs in solar sailing. More than a simple “prize” adventure, this may be a segue to private-public partnerships in pursuit of popular goals. And we certainly captured the huge public interest in exploring space. The public attention to this project was overwhelming – almost. The Planetary Society staff is doing a great job of coping with it.
No way can I be depressed with all these achievements on our slate.
There are more specific technical accomplishments from Cosmos 1. The spacecraft design offers great promise as a platform for future missions, including, perhaps, even missions to Mars. The low-cost system we put together for mission operations, tracking, data-handling, and international coordination of a satellite is a model for the future.
One other achievement is noteworthy: we did this mission entirely with private funds. Ann Druyan and Cosmos Studios was an incredibly loyal sponsor, philanthropist Peter Lewis and the members of the Planetary Society were very generous donors.
In its 25 years, The Planetary Society has been part of both failed and successful space missions. Two examples come immediately to mind: Mars Polar Lander crashed carrying our Mars Microphone. The hughly successful Mars Exploration Rovers carried our calibration target and hosted our Red Rover Goes to Mars students. We know well the highs and lows of space exploration.
We deeply appreciate and are buoyed by the determination and spirit of Planetary Society members and by the public who wish us well, congratulate us for our efforts, and are telling us even now, “Keep going.” We will keep going. Although right now, I don’t know exactly how, I do know that we are committed to trying again, for The Planetary Society exists to make space exploration happen. Join us on this continuing adventure!