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Last November, Russia launched a widely anticipated mission to the Martian moon Phobos (…) the mission was supposed to mark a “cavalry charge” that would redeem a quarter-century of interplanetary impotence. Instead it turned into a cosmic humiliation when the craft died shortly after takeoff and fell back to Earth.

Phobos was part of a series of recent disappointments for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. (…) The overall track record of Russian space launches is still not significantly different from that of other spacefaring nations, and the country did successfully ferry two groups of astronauts to and from the International Space Station late last year. But it is the nature of the apparent causes of the accidents—often amazingly inept human errors—that seems most alarming.

(…) Valery Ryumin, a former cosmonaut and now deputy chief designer of the firm that builds and operates Russia’s human space vehicles, told Echo of Moscow the day after the Progress crash that “of course, quality is worsening—we have to admit this.” He added that “checks have become far less thorough than back in old Soviet days.” The main reason for this trend is the loss of experienced workers and the industry’s inability to attract qualified replacements in sufficient numbers.

(Scientific American, May 2012, James E. Oberg: “Not Ready for Takeoff”, p.13)

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