What a Soviet spacecraft on Venus can teach you about failure
The 1960's and 70's were a frenzied time for spacecraft engineering. It was a field that had just been invented, and putting machines into a new extremely harsh environment required new methods, materials, and tools, and no one had very much experience. The Space Race was in full swing as the US and USSR rushed to get things launched both to assert their country’s dominance, and as a reaction to the possibility that the other might be developing a space warfare capability. One of the first targets that the Soviets set their sights on was Venus. Astronomers knew very little about our sister planet at the time because of the thick, cloudy atmosphere that shrouded her in mystery. The Soviet program to explore Venus, Venera, began with the launch of Venera 1VA in February of 1961. It began well enough, but soon after launch the second stage failed, and the craft didn't even escape into Earth’s orbit. The USSR quickly covered this failure up the way they covered up all of their spacecraft failures: by basically saying, “It was supposed to do that.” Just nine days later, they launched Venera 1, which did make it out of Earth’s orbit.
Only a few months before the spacecraft flew past Venus, radio communication was lost, and no data was acquired. Another failure. This was to become an unfortunate pattern for the Venera program. The next two missions both made it into Earth orbit, but engine failures prevented a successful heliocentric injection, and they both crashed into the Earth. The third stage of the next spacecraft, Venera 2MV-2 exploded, destroying the vehicle. The next two again failed to reach heliocentric orbit and crashed into Earth. It was now 1965, and Venera 2 was launched and successfully survived to pass by Venus. Unfortunately, communications problems plagued this mission as well, and the data link was lost before any information from the sensors could be acquired. Venera 3 was to attempt a landing on Venus, and made it all the way to the atmosphere before losing communications. Despite this, it survived long enough to become the first man made object to ever land (albeit, crash land) on another planet. One more probe in the Venera program was launched in 1965, which failed to leave Earth’s orbit and crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania. At this point, the Venera program was neck-and-neck with the America Mariner program that was exploring Mars as well as doing flybys of Venus. The Soviets finally caught a break and pulled ahead in 1967 when Venera 4 captured data about the atmosphere of Venus as it flew towards the surface. It transmitted this data before crashing, but it was the first ever interplanetary broadcast. The celebration would not last long. The next probe, launched just 5 days later, failed to escape Earth’s orbit and crashed into the Earth. In 1969, a few months before the United States would land on the moon, two more Soviet probes managed to collect data from the atmosphere of Venus and transmit it back before being crushed by the incredible pressure. Finally, in 1970, after a grand total of 14 attempts and 11 failures (a 21% success rate), Venera 7 became the first man made object to broadcast from the surface of another planet. It collected data for 23 minutes before being melted and crushed by the tremendous heat and pressure, which had been vastly underestimated.
But again, this victory was soon met with another frustrating failure as it’s sister craft launched 5 days later failed to escape Earth’s orbit and crashed. The next success wouldn't come until 1972, when Venera 8 made it to the surface and transmitted data for 50 minutes before melting and being crushed. Remember, at this point the US is routinely sending astronauts to walk on the moon and had even managed to bring 2 full cars to drive around on the moon (the Lunar Roving Vehicles). They would put a third rover up with the final Apollo mission a few months later. Meanwhile, the next Soviet probe exploded when trying to get into an injection orbit. From 1975 to 1983, Soviet probes were launched less frequently than before, but they all survived (before eventually melting and being crushed as expected). The main goals were to get pictures of the surface and to analyze the soil. Most of the last missions brought color cameras in two separate imagers. In each mission, at least one or both of the cameras failed in the same way: the lens cap didn't pop off. In one case, the lens cap popped off and landed directly underneath the mechanism for measuring soil compressibility, causing the craft to measure the compressibility of the titanium lens cap instead of the soil. While not as many pictures were taken as originally planned, the pictures that did made it back to Earth are amazing.
In 1983, the Venera program finally ended. If you’re keeping track at home, the total number of spacecraft in the program (that we know of — remember, the Soviets tried to cover up the failures) was 26. Thirteen of them actually did what they were supposed to. I think one of the most fascinating things about the program was that from the time they started launching until the first successful probe was 6 years and 11 spacecraft. They failed 10 times before something worked. When I was initially reading about the Venera program, it made me realize several things.
Doing anything hard and worthwhile means failing. Probably a lot, and probably a lot more than you’re used to. Working on hard problems self selects for those worthy of succeeding. What do you think kept those engineers getting up in the morning? Imagine getting out of college at 22 and getting a job working on Venera. Now you’re 27 and you've built 10 of these things in the past 5 years and not a single one has worked. Only people who don’t lose sight of the worthiness of the problem will persevere.
Iterate and fail fast, but not too fast. The Venera program was launching two to three times per year in the beginning. Some of the failures happened in pairs because two copies of a design were both launched within days of each other, but several major problems persisted throughout the program, like upper stage failures that preventing a correct insertion into a trans-Venus injection orbit. The last probes that were taking pictures always had lens cap failures. The American Mariner program had similar failures early on, but the rate of launches was lower, and the rate of failures was lower. Popular advice, especially for startups, is to “fail fast”. Don’t fail so fast that you can’t learn what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future.
Competition is powerful. Competition motivated the people on the Venera project past constant failure to eventual success. Venera and Mariner were both launching multiple spacecraft per year and were on a production schedule similar to a modern consumer electronics company. Competition drove the money and the resources, but it also drove the engineers on a personal level, and that makes all the difference. Having funding for a project is one thing, but when the people working on it are so passionate that they pull all-nighters because they want to and look for inefficiencies on their own and are willing to do whatever it takes to fight the problem when it fights back is what separates an ordinary project from a legendary project.