Wednesday’s Book Review: “Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries”


Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries. By Wesley T. Huntress Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2011. Paperback, 467 pp., illustrations, ISBN 978-1-4419-7897-4. $44.95.

It seems hard to believe now, but once there was a robotic space race to the Moon and planets of the solar system between the United States and the Soviet Union just as significant as the human race to the Moon. The two superpowers engaged in head-to-head competition and the results were similar to the human race, after a series of Soviet successes early on the U.S. emerged to dominate the story. But that domination did not take place until the 1970s. Indeed, the capabilities of Soviet planetary science were on broad display and their successes with robotic explorers were impressive.

The first target was the Moon. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s when the United States was undertaking its accelerated efforts to explore the Moon, the Soviet program also had 20 successful robotic missions there and achieved several notable firsts: first probe to impact the Moon, first flyby and image of the lunar far side, first soft landing, first lunar orbiter, and first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. The two successful series of Soviet probes were the Luna (15 missions) and the Zond (5 missions). Lunar flyby missions (Luna 3; Zond 3, 6, 7, and 8) obtained photographs of the lunar surface, particularly the limb (southern) and far side regions. The Zond 6, 7, and 8 missions circled the Moon and returned to Earth, where they were recovered (Zond 6 and 7 in Siberia, and Zond 8 in the Indian Ocean). Three robotic missions (Luna 16, 20, and 24) also soft-landed and returned lunar samples to Earth. Between the end of the Apollo program in December 1972 and the return of Luna 24 in August 1976, the Soviets had the Moon to themselves and flew three more successful missions during this period.

After important early successes the Soviet Union lost its edge in planetary exploration during the 1970s. It never had much success with Mars exploration, for example. It has undertaken 17 missions to Mars since the beginning of the space age, with the first launched in 1960, and of those only one was successful while four were partially successful. The Soviets had more success with Venus: 29 missions undertaken with 13 successes and five partial successes. But in the middle part of the 1970s the rate of activity in sending our planetary probes declined. Efforts since that time have continued, but with less frequency and fully successful missions have been few and far between.

Interestingly, despite these successes over the years—the second most successful robotic exploration of the solar system undertaken anywhere in the world—few understand, and fewer still appreciate the history of Soviet planetary exploration. Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries, by Wesley T. Huntress Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov, serves as an excellent catalog of the Soviet Union’s lunar and planetary exploration program. At sum, it is a useful description of a remarkable story that captures considerable data in one place and offers unique photographs of Soviet hardware.

One message comes through in this new book, the Soviet Union did not have anything approaching the funding and support achieved by NASA in the United States, did not have the same level of technical capability, and did not have the scientific base present in other nations. They did, however, have both a remarkable dedication to the effort and an ingenious collection of engineers and scientists and a resolve to continue planetary exploration in the face of great adversity. Huntress and Marov do a commendable job in capturing the essence of this story, offering the telling anecdote and the detailed consideration of how and by what method to undertake individual projects. No question, this is the best overview of the Soviet planetary program published in the West. It is also a compelling account of both triumph and failure—more failure than triumph—and will be permanently useful as a source for understanding this significant aspect of space age rivalries between the U.S. and the USSR.

Both authors are practitioners—scientists intimately engaged in planetary exploration programs—rather than historians, and the book betrays that perspective. Huntress was a leader of the NASA planetary science effort and Marov fulfilled a similar role in the Soviet Union/Russia. Both approach their topic as documentarians, seeking to get between two covers as much technical and scientific detail as possible and to illuminate key decisions. Taking a chronological approach, they describe central actors, spacecraft, missions, and scientific results. There is considerable repetition of information, something that might have been avoided by a more skilled writer. The result is not an easy reading experience, but it can be a worthwhile one. Mostly, however, it is a useful reference work.

Huntress and Marov emphasize how the Soviet planetary program, and this has been continued in the post-Soviet era, built incrementally on their earlier efforts. There has been a lot of commonality over the years of hardware and objectives on the various Moon/Mars/Venus projects. This is strikingly different from the U.S. approach, which tends to design a grand approach to exploring a solar system body and then press into service new technologies aboard one-off spacecraft to yield data in new and different arenas. One can justifiably criticize either approach to planetary exploration. One may also applaud each divergent approach. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses. Overall, the American effort has been more successful. Is that because of the greater amount of funding available or some other set of reasons? What is clear is that the Soviet efforts were never ad hoc and opportunistic, despite what many believed during the Cold War. Their planetary probes had their victories, and their scientists also had their discoveries.

With the recent failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe the Russian planetary exploration program is once again in the news and its leaders are on the hot seat in Russia. Perhaps it would be wise before voicing criticism of this failure to read this history. It will demonstrate that planetary scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union/Russia have been working with minimal resources, poor political support, and less than optimal technologies for many years. Despite that reality, they have enhanced understanding of the solar system in fundamental ways. Phobos-Grunt must be viewed as part of a long train of missions over the years. I hope it is not the last such mission undertaken.

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