The Russian space agency Roscosmos has had its share of setbacks in recent months--namely the failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe in January, along with a few failed missions in 2011--but agency chief Vladimir Popovkin announced on Thursday a program that he hopes will reinvigorate the agency: an X-Factor style search for volunteers to return to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. (The USSR never had any successful manned moon landings.)
Popovkin told the Russian radio station Ekho Moskovy: Man should return to the Moon. And not just like in 1969, to leave a mark. We can do important work there—such as building astrology labs and observing the Sun.
The effort is not without its detractors. Valeriy Ryumin, a former Soviet cosmonaut, told the Russian newspaper Trud that there is nothing particularly interesting on the Moon and it has been visited by both men and machines. The only reason such a project would be of interest is if a lot of money was allocated to it.
During the Cold War, the Soviet space program was a well-funded prestige project, but after the collapse of the USSR, funding was slashed to minimal levels throughout the 1990s. The Putin and Medvedev administrations have used the nation's newfound oil and natural gas wealth to pour money into the agency in recent years—it received more than $3 billion in funding in 2011, almost triple its 2007 haul—but that hasn't stopped Roscosmos from suffering a string of prominent failures in recent months.
The failures appear to have spurred the agency to drop its Martian ambitions and focus solely on the moon. Anatoliy Davydov, deputy chief of Roscosmos, said that after the Phobos-Grunt failure, We may need to think again about how to allocate our resources. Perhaps, we need a more specific, realistic Moon program, and do any Mars research as a part of a bigger international program.
The problems may not be isolated to the Mars program, however. Lev Zelenkin, who the English-language state Russian broadcaster RT describes as closely involved in both projects, said that both the lunar and Martian programs shared many design features in common, and that any failure of one program would lead to delays in the other, as Russian engineers struggle to correct the failures in time for Popovkin's ambitious 2020 goal for the first lunar landing.