After a Proton-M rocket carrying three navigation satellites exploded 32 seconds after it was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 2, Russians laughed.
"Three Glonass navigation satellites have been successfully launched," blogger Evgeny Kuznetsov tweeted. "The smoke from the place where they fell allows us to determine the precise location of the launchpad."
Another Twitter user, Givi Dzhashi, parodied MasterCard ads: "Morning coffee, 70 rubles. A croissant with jam, 100 rubles. Watching $200 million blow up live on the air — priceless!"
The disastrous launch was, indeed, televised. As the rocket abruptly changed direction and began to plummet, the announcer for the state-owned Russia 24 channel commented in a bewildered tone, "It looks like something is going wrong." The phrase is now a meme on social networks.
A dark, cynical sense of humour is a defining national trait that has helped Russians cope with disaster. This one, at least, hasn’t claimed any human lives. It did, however, cost 4.4 billion rubles ($135 million), according to the official estimate. And it was only the latest in a series of setbacks for Glonass, the ambitious satellite-navigation project designed to rival the U.S. global-positioning systems.
The Glonass program was started in Soviet times, but until the mid-2000s, Russia didn’t have the money to develop it. As oil and gas prices rose, creating a windfall for the state budget, a quick succession of launches brought the number of Glonass satellites in orbit to 24, enough for global coverage. GPS has 31 active satellites.
The last time a GPS satellite launch failed was in 1997. Russia hasn’t been so lucky. In December 2010, another Proton-M failed to deliver three satellites, which were lost in the Pacific. The biggest disasters for the Glonass program have taken place on the ground. Since 2012, its management has been under investigation on several counts of large-scale theft. Late last year, after the police said 6.5 billion rubles ($200 million) had been stolen, Yuri Urlichich lost his job as Glonass chief designer.
President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said in an infamous interview in November 2012 that he had known of the graft since 2010 yet tolerated it so it could be properly investigated. Coincidentally, he used a similar phrase as the Russia 24 announcer: "I suspected that something was going wrong."
The ever-expanding investigations have caused some bloggers to speculate that the July 2 launch was never meant to be successful. "Many people think the satellites were not operational and the accident was planned," wrote blogger Alexander Trifonov.
The corruption fighter Alexei Navalny also blamed the Proton disaster on graft: "If everything has been stolen, it won’t fly."
References to theft as the reason for any failure are a knee-jerk reaction in today’s Russia. Yet more "seems to be going wrong" with the space program. "It was the hope that Russian aerospace would overcome its crisis that burned down in the explosion," Viktor Myasnikov wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The reasons are clear: Incompetent management, the loss of production culture, technological backwardness, the aging personnel and equipment."
Six of the currently active Glonass satellites will soon go offline because their 60-month service term is drawing to a close. On July 8, Information Satellite Systems, the producer of Russian navigation satellites, announced that it would make seven more of them by the end of 2014. The plan is to launch them one by one, not in batches of three, from Plesetsk in northern Russia. Despite the disasters and the corruption investigations, the government has budgeted an additional 320 billion rubles (almost $10 billion) for Glonass until 2020.
The Russian government has a reason for not giving up on the project or even slowing it.
Russia’s purpose in establishing what amounts to a GPS double is what technology entrepreneur Igor Ashmanov calls "digital sovereignty."
What if the United States shut off its system or made it less precise for everyone but its own military? Revelations by the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on U.S. electronic intelligence have reinforced Russia’s belief that it needs its own "sovereign" communications infrastructure. Even if hundreds of millions of dollars are stolen and lost, further billions will be spent to advance this goal.
This political attitude in Moscow isn’t a bad thing for the global consumer. GPS and Glonass work nicely together. Independent tests have shown that dual GPS-Glonass receivers provide more precise positioning than either system alone.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.