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Medvedev threatens criminal penalties for space officials

Posted: November 28, 2011

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has suggested officials should be punished for recent failures in the country's space program.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks with reporters Saturday. Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office
Medvedev told reporters financial, disciplinary, or criminal charges could be used to punish those responsible for a series of rocket crashes and space blunders.

Speaking to Russian journalists Saturday, Medvedev said the failures have dealt a "serious blow to our competitiveness," according to a transcript of the question-and-answer session posted on the Kremlin's website.

Earlier this month, Russia's $165 million Phobos-Grunt Mars probe was stranded in Earth orbit. Russia's workhorse rockets have also suffered four mishaps in the last 12 months, resulting in the loss of satellites and a resupply ship for the International Space Station.

"This is not a fatal blow, but it does mean that we are going to have to make a thorough examination of the situation and punish those responsible," Medvedev said.

Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission blasted off Nov. 8, but the Mars-bound spacecraft is stuck in low Earth orbit after its propulsion system failed to accelerate the probe toward the Red Planet after launch.

"I am not talking about putting anyone up against the wall, as during Stalin's years, of course, but we can use money as a punishment, get back from them the funds we put into them, or, in cases where clear responsibility is established, disciplinary or criminal liability might need to be considered," Medvedev said.

Engineers lost contact with Phobos-Grunt for two weeks, but the European Space Agency established communications with the craft Nov. 22. Since then, controllers have only received intermittent transmissions from Phobos-Grunt, which missed its narrow window to reach Mars for at least two years, assuming Russia is able to recover the mission at all.

Medvedev's comments came as Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, struggled to diagnose the problem with Phobos-Grunt. Roscosmos has not regularly publicized the progress of the recovery effort, leading to speculation and unsubstantiated reports on the mission.

Russia lost a Progress space station cargo vehicle and navigation, communications and Earth observation satellites in four rocket failures in the last year.

A Proton rocket fell short of orbit and destroyed three Glonass navigation payloads in December 2010 after technicians loaded too much fuel into the booster, then the Breeze upper stage of a surplus Russian ballistic missile deposited a Russian geodesy satellite in the wrong orbit in February.

Two bungled launches in August doomed a civil communications satellite and supplies for the space station. Investigators blamed the failures on a programming error and debris in a fuel line.