Russia is about to launch its first moon mission in nearly 50 years. It is an important mission for the Russian space industry, which has been in decline for decades. It is also being interpreted as part of Russia’s campaign to regain the power and importance on the global stage that it once had as part of the Soviet Union.
The Luna 25 mission is scheduled to launch on 11 August from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. It consists of a lander with scientific instruments designed largely to study the make-up and properties of moon dust, and it is intended to land about 11 days after launch.
The mission’s name links it directly to the space missions of the Soviet Union: Luna 24, this mission’s predecessor, took place in 1976. Luna 25 is in many ways remarkably similar to Luna 24, but rather than landing in the moon’s equatorial region as all previous Luna landers did, it is intended to land near the moon’s south pole, an area of particular interest for human exploration because of its water reservoirs.
After Luna 24, the booming Soviet space industry began to fade along with the last vestiges of the cold war’s space race. The collapse of the Soviet Union 32 years ago meant that Russia had to launch a new space agency, Roscosmos, which has suffered from political chaos and funding issues. In recent decades, many other players have joined the crowd operating in space. Now, there is a new space race – and Russia doesn’t have the head start that the Soviet Union did.
“It seems like this is something about ‘Make Russia Great Again’. It’s about reclaiming territory that the Soviet Union had and reaching for some of that former glory,” says Andrew Jenks at California State University, Long Beach. “There’s an awful lot riding on this launch, in terms of whether Russia has the right stuff on the international stage to show that it can compete in an area where it had once been a clear leader.”
Since the 1970s, the Soviet and then Russian space programmes have experienced a string of high-profile failures: a series of rocket explosions, a space shuttle that only launched once and a planned Mars mission that never made it beyond Earth’s orbit.
Collectively, that record discourages some in the space flight industry from being optimistic about Luna 25. “I hope they succeed, but the more likely result if you’re a betting person would be failure,” says Jenks. “The failures in the space programme have been almost continuous.”
If it does succeed, it will be a major milestone for Russia, setting the stage for an eventual permanent moon base in collaboration with China. It could also reinvigorate Russia’s ailing space sector, which has been affected by “brain drain” and loss of international partnerships due to the war in Ukraine.
“I think this would be a real morale booster for the thousands of people who make up the infrastructure of Russian space science,” says Jenks. “But you can’t eat morale or turn it into a space programme – I don’t see how one successful mission can change the dynamic of a degraded infrastructure for producing space technology that clearly isn’t working.”
Roscosmos was approached for comment on the Luna 25 launch.