Russians Excelling at Killing Creatures in Space Lately

Foton M4 capsule after landing. (Credit: Roscosmos)
Foton M4 capsule after landing. (Credit: Roscosmos)

It can’t be easy being either a gecko or a deputy prime minister in Russia these days.

If you’re a gecko, the chances are that some idiot scientist is going to stick you in a capsule and launch you into space with a bunch of other geckos. They will stick a camera in there and film you having space sex.

If that’s not humiliating enough, the chances of you coming back alive from such a trip is roughly 50-50 because the engineering geniuses who designed the spacecraft don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing.

Matters are even worse if you’re the deputy prime minister in charge of reforming Russia’s failure-prone space industry. For Dmitry Rogozin, a capsule full of dead space geckos who somehow became international celebrities is another embarrassing sign that your overhaul efforts are not quite going according to plan. In fact, President for Life Putin might decide you are failing him.

That would be bad. Very bad.

Such is the situation this week after the Russian Foton M4 bio-satellite landed with all five geckos aboard dead. The reason? Equipment failure. They froze to death in space after the heating unit for their habitat malfunctioned. It’s not even clear if they had space sex or not.

The flight of the geckos attracted a lot of media attention, much more than for a normal bio-satellite flight. I figure there’s several reasons for it. First, the idea of lizards having sex in space is kind of a novel idea. The drama was heightened when Russian controllers lost contact with the spacecraft for a period of time.

But, mostly I blame Geico for turning an animal that is scaly and a little scary looking into something cute and trustworthy that makes you want to immediately pick up the phone and get a quote for auto insurance. How’d they do that, exactly? I mean…why? What?

Although the geckos didn’t survive, the flies sent up on the spacecraft did. They were apparently busy reproducing, something that didn’t get nearly as much attention for two reasons. First, flies are icky, way ickier than geckos. Second, the idea of flies exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation conjures up all measures of bad sci-fi movies.

Rogozin, being the resident space expert Russia’s political hierarchy, didn’t even wait to see if anything aboard was alive before welcoming home the “joyful” Foton M4 crew.

Welcome home, brave animalnauts! For your courage, you are Heroes of Russian Republic. You will also be dissected soon for benefit of Russian Republic. Thank you for sacrifice. — All the best, Dmitry 🙂

Rogozin has been otherwise silent about the mission. Neither he nor the other Dmitry, Prime Minister Medvedev, have threatened to throw anyone in jail over the gecko deaths, as they are prone to do when one of Russia’s periodic launch failures destroys a valuable satellite.

But, the failure is troubling nonetheless, not in and of itself, but as part of a larger pattern of deep problems within the Russian space industry.

Those of you who pay attention to the Russian space program might recall something vaguely familiar about a bio-satellite landing with its key specimens dead. You’d be right. In fact, it happened just last year.

The Bion M1 spacecraft landed on May 19, 2013 after a 30-day mission. In this case, all 15 geckos sent aloft survived, as did all 20 snails. The other species on board were not as lucky.

AnimalNumberSurvivedCause of Death
Mice4516Food supply failure, other malfunctions, stress
Mongolian gerbils80Equipment failure
FishNot specified0Equipment failure

Scientists were expecting some deaths during the mission at a rate of perhaps 5 percent. The death rate was definitely higher due to the equipment failures.

The Russian space program has been going through some tough times over the last few years, what with multiple launch failures, decaying facilities, an aging workforce, a general lack of competitiveness in anything but rockets, and Rogozin acting as overseer.

Any one of those problems would be challenging enough to solve; together, they’re a perfect storm that can’t be solved by merely spending more money. The solution of consolidating the entire industry under one company is either crazy or crazy brilliant. (My guess is the former.)

Repeated equipment failures on back to back bio-satellites is merely another sad sign of the depths to which a formerly proud space program has sunk. I realize people learn a lot from failures. Hopefully, they will learn from the last two and do better next time.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Doesn’t bode well for any future Russian hsf efforts 🙂

  • ‮‮‮

    There seems to be quite a lot of sensationalism around this particular mission indeed. Just to relax it a bit, here’s something from Vladimir Sychyov, head of the bio-experiment part of this mission, (very) loosely translated:

    First of all, Foton-M is not a satellite for bio experiments. We were “guests” in this spacecraft. It doesn’t even have a proper life support system. Bion is a dedicated bio-satellite with an integrated life support system, but the next Bion-M will be ready in 2018 in the best case, and we deliberately chose Foton-M for these experiments knowing of all the risks and expecting some experiments to return incomplete results. There were about 20 bio-experiments which didn’t require strict thermal conditioning, geckos were a side one. All other subjects (including flies which were the most imporant part of the mission) did make it, geckos didn’t, it was a part of the risks involved. Not much of scientific value was lost even with gecko experiment.

    >The reason? Equipment failure.
    It’s still completely unclear what caused the temperature to drop to 15°C instead of nominal 20°C, actually. It’s way too early to jump to conclusions.

  • Charles Lurio

    The geckos should have been satisfied with the honor of flying in a capsule that was basically the same structurally as Gagarin’s. The Russians never retire a proven design.

  • Douglas Messier

    Interfax quotes gecko experiment supervisor Sergei Savelyev as saying he doesn’t want to do more of these experiments until the engineers figure out how to build better systems:

    “I very much hope I will no longer be a part of this because space
    projects fail for technical reasons. I may reconsider when they learn
    how to build [space hardware],” Savelyev said.

    Some equipment must have malfunctioned if the temperature dropped. Unless it was another software error like on the Soyuz launch.

  • Paul451

    “You will also be dissected soon for benefit of Russian Republic. Thank you for sacrifice.”

  • windbourne

    Not sure that the 2 are really related.
    I think that overall, when Russia does simple steps, they do ok. It is when they try to make great leaps that they appear to have issues.

  • ‮‮‮

    > they should be able to make habitats that are reliable.
    Who? Third-party engineers that designed the gecko container? Maybe. Foton-M itself is not a habitat: it’s just a pressurized and insulated capsule with an engine. Experiments were the payload, not an integral part of spacecraft, they’ve had their own life support systems.

    I agree with everything else though, it’s just unnecessary ranting that puts me off sometimes. I usually trust facts, details and expertise, not lengthy conclusions based on political views and a bit of news.