There is currently much debate about whether this internal competition in the Soviet space industry was good or bad. Already after the failure of Luna-25, one could read that the actual monopolisation, in contrast to the internal competition of the Soviet era, could just become one of the reasons for the drop in the level of technical prowess. As you know, the strategic decision that for every aspect of the new technology, especially of defence importance, there should be a backup factory and a backup design bureau was formed back in the late Stalin period, and then developed under Khrushchev. This was the case not only in the rocket and space industry, but also, for example, in the nuclear industry. According to the memoirs, we can see that the competition between parallel Soviet nuclear centres in Sarov and Snezhinsk was also extremely high and was sometimes accompanied by its own bureaucratic intrigues. The same thing happened in aviation; from the military it spread to civilian aviation, especially between the Tupolev Design Bureau, Ilyushin, Yakovlev and others.
Due to greater openness regarding the topic of aviation, it is clearly seen that the competition of design ideas in such a situation was extrapolated to encompass the competition for administrative resources available to one chief designer or another. As a result, many promising developments, for example, the supersonic aircraft of Vladimir Myasishchev or the work of Robert Bartini, were never implemented.
The Soviet missile and space industry did not differ from the rest in this regard. Immediately placed in a tight timeframe due to the geopolitical race with the Americans, it was supplemented by troubled internal competition. As a result, the ultimately chosen Korolev-Mishin project with Kuznetsov engines was never able to take off. All launches of the super-heavy five-stage N1 launch vehicle, where only three dozen engines were on the first stage, ended in failure.
The same can be said about the spacecraft being developed for manned lunar flight. The Soyuz spacecraft, the development of which began as part of the lunar programme, was also being prepared and launched into space in extreme haste. This led to the Soyuz-1 tragedy, which took the life of Vladimir Komarov in April 1967. According to now-published sources, it is clear that there was not only a fatal non-opening of the parachute; a number of emergency situations erupted during the flight itself. As a result, the planned launch of the second manned Soyuz and docking in orbit were cancelled. This was a key stage of the lunar programme. Then the human factor was added, when in October 1968 Georgy Beregovoy was unable to carry out manual docking on the Soyuz-3 with an unmanned spacecraft. This finally broke all the deadlines, regardless of the readiness of the rocket. Beregovoy’s phrase in radio communications with the Earth after an unsuccessful docking, “The condition is excellent, the mood is lousy” also remained in the historical memory of space quotations, although in narrow circles.
As a result, the Soviet Union lost that first lunar race. After the success of America’s Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, the Soviet manned lunar programme was quietly curtailed. The USSR was satisfied with the launch of automatic stations, where there were undoubted successes, primarily the work of Lunokhods and the delivery of lunar soil to Earth in an unmanned mode.
In the post-Soviet period, Russia’s activity in the study of the Moon and interplanetary space subsided for obvious reasons. We can remember two failures in the Martian projects: “Mars-96” and “Phobos-Grunt” in 2011. Therefore, Luna-25 before launch and during the course of bravura reports after the launch of the rocket, was perceived as the beginning of a Russian return to deep space flights. Meanwhile, the US, EU, China and India have already done a lot in our absence. In this new space race, we initially found ourselves lagging behind. It is important to note that the preparation of the Luna-25 project itself was a long and difficult process.
As a result, when the decision was finally made to launch the rocket, it turned out that in addition to the symbolic lunar race, the whole world could also watch the physical race between Russia and India live on air. Due to the relative position of the Earth and the Moon and for ballistic reasons, the “window of opportunity” for the most convenient launch of the rocket falls on certain periods of time, and the Indians sent their ship to the Moon at the same time as Russia. The Indians started earlier, but according to the flight plan, the Russian station was supposed to land first. After the failure, some comments
of Russian experts in the space industry pointed to certain off-design situations that accompanied Luna-25 during the flight itself. Perhaps, from their point of view, it would be more expedient to postpone the landing in order to more clearly adjust all the parameters. But then Russia would have lost to India in this live lunar race. As a result, what happened happened. The Russian station failed, and the Indian one successfully landed right during the BRICS summit, and Prime Minister Modi spoke on the live broadcast of the landing. This stage of the lunar race was won by India.
As a result, deep space exploration programmes are again accompanied by geopolitical competition. We have already drawn attention to this factor, to a kind of “vanity fair
” in space programmes, on the Valdai Club website. Apparently, this situation is inevitable. It was also domestically significant in Russia that Luna-25 took place during the Special Operation in Ukraine. As a result, one could observe a discussion in the Russian media about how appropriate this flight was amid the current situation. The prevailing point of view was that the launch was needed, because, first, the Luna-25 project was old, its launch had been postponed many times, the ballistic window of opportunity for launching a rocket falls infrequently, and there is nowhere to move further. Second, and no less important, it was necessary to show that even during the current military conflict, Russia not only endures, but is capable of launching other large-scale projects.
But besides this, in the Russian media one could meet another point of view: that in the current situation it is necessary to change priorities in all sectors, including space. That the space industry should yield priority to the needs of the conflict with Ukraine, to improve satellite reconnaissance along the line of contact and the rear of the enemy, to create mass satellite communications at the front for soldiers and officers, following the model of Elon Musk’s Starlink against the enemy. Now is not the time for that “vanity fair” with the moon, which was possible before, and the Soviet slogan of the times of the Great Patriotic War, “Everything for the front, everything for victory”, should now finally become an imperative. This point of view also, in our opinion, has a right to exist.
As a result, on the one hand, the failure of Luna-25 is not a reason to give up and lament that everything is lost. Failure at this stage of the lunar race can be corrected later. On the other hand, a significant segment of Russian society is wondering how expedient it is now to divert attention (and budget funds) from the needs of space support for the armed forces to the Moon and other mirages not related to the current military tasks of space programmes.