On Tuesday, Russia celebrated the 61st anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, with a presidential visit to a scandal-plagued spaceport, a pledge to stay the course in the face of international sanctions over the Ukraine invasion, and an initiative to fly a citizen of one of the nation’s closest allies into space.
“Everything that we’ve seen during our visit to Vostochny, all successes in space exploration achieved in recent years prove that our country retains its leadership in space industry, is one of the leaders in this area,” President Vladimir Putin said during a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
After decades of relative peace, a full-scale war has broken out in Europe with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Angered by the former Soviet republic’s efforts to integrate with Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rolled the dice and unleashed hell on his nation’s neighbor.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are patterns that echo down through time. Sixteen centuries ago, another European leader launched a similar invasion designed to restore past glories. He succeeded — to a point.
All this has Happened Before…
In late June 533, an expeditionary force under the command of Gen. Flavius Balisarius set sail from the Eastern Roman Empire capital of Constantinople. After a voyage of several months along the coasts of Greece and Italy, the force landed at Caputvada on the North Africa coast in early September.
The expeditionary force’s target was the Vandal Kingdom, centered in the former Roman capital of North Africa, Carthage. Emperor Justinian I had dispatched the expedition with two objectives in mind, one short term and limited, the other expansive and long term.
The Vandals had been part of a wave of barbarian tribes that, pushed out of their homelands by marauding Huns, had overrun the Western Roman Empire in the early fifth century. (The empire had split into east and west in 395, with separate capitals at Ravenna and Constantinople.) Vandals and other barbarians had crossed the Rhine, pillaged their way across Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), and seized control of Iberia (present-day Spain and Portugal). For a period, life was good as the invaders soaked up the Mediterranean sun and lives off the tax revenues that used to go to the Western Roman Empire.
Over the past few years, I’ve been keeping track of Russia’s annual launch failures. For reasons I can’t quite recall, the table I’ve used only went back to 2009.
Recently, I saw a graphic on a Russian website about launch failures, and I realized I hadn’t gone back far enough. So, I dug into the records of the last 30 years from 1988 through 2017, which covers Russia and the last four years of the Soviet Union.
And holy crap! There were a helluva lot of them. Launch failures are not a bug in the system, they’re a feature.
The massive 8-ton Phobos-Grunt (“soil”) spacecraft, set for launch in October 2009, would be one of the most ambitious missions ever launched to Mars. It will also be the first Mars spacecraft launched by Russia since the ill-fated Mars 96 mission, which plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
If it works, Phobos-Grunt would be the first successful effort to return soil from a Martian moon. It would also reverse a nearly 50-year record of failure. Of 20 missions launched by the Soviet Union and Russia, not one was a complete success.
Anatoly Zak has a great story about Phobos-Grunt on the Air & Space Magazine website.