After many months of delays caused by the country's costly and reprehensible invasion of Ukraine, Russia's Luna-25 mission finally set off this month to return the country to the surface of the Moon for the first time in 47 years.

A lot was riding on the mission. The country's space program, Rocosmos, has already largely been cut off from the international space community due to Russia's belligerence, forcing it to blaze its own path.

But it wasn't meant to be. Luna-25 slammed into the lunar surface over the weekend, according to a brief Roscosmos update posted to Telegram — and that's a catastrophe for the credibility of the country's struggling space program, as modern-day Russia fails to follow up on the successes of the USSR.

According to a "preliminary analysis" by Rocosmos, the craft "switched to an off-design orbit" right before it crashed.

"During the operation, an emergency situation occurred on board the automatic station, which did not allow the maneuver to be performed with the specified parameters," the state corporation wrote, as translated by Google. "The management team is currently analyzing the situation."

The demise of Luna-25 couldn't have come at a worse time for the space agency. With the International Space Station's days already numbered, the country's presence in space could soon be undermined.

Recent high-profile failures have even brought into question the dependability of Russia's number one space export, the Soyuz space capsule — especially with SpaceX swooping in with its reusable Dragon capsule, giving the US and much of the Western world a vendor to greatly cut their dependability on Russia for access to orbit.

And the situation has only gotten worse over the last couple of years. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put considerable pressure on the country's space program, with former Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin fanning the flames by making unhinged threats squarely aimed at the US (adding to the general aura of madness, Rogozin was subsequently sent to Ukraine, where he was reportedly injured by shelling).

Roscosmos even went as far as to use its presence on the ISS to spread anti-Ukraine propaganda, a stunt that was met with outrage by NASA.

It's the unfortunate culmination of decades of largely peaceful US-Russia cooperation on board the aging orbital outpost, a relationship that's bound to change once the station is decommissioned via de-orbiting through controlled thruster fires at the end of this decade.

Even before its latest invasion, Russia's actions in space have raised many eyebrows among its collaborators.

A 2020 anti-satellite missile launch, for instance, caused a defunct Russian communications satellite to break into thousands of pieces, which could "endanger commercial satellites and irrevocably pollute the space domain," according to a statement by US Space Command commander James Dickinson.

"Russia has made space a warfighting domain by testing space-based and ground-based weapons intended to target and destroy satellites," Dickinson said. "This fact is inconsistent with Moscow's public claims that Russia seeks to prevent conflict in space."

In 2023, the fate of Roscosmos doesn't look much better. With a strained budget, a greatly reduced demand for its Soyuz capsule, glaring technical issues — the ISS was literally spun out of control due to Russian thrusters unexpectedly firing on more than one occasion and canceled international space exploration collaborations, the ailing agency is desperately looking for new sources of revenue.

In the meantime, Russia's adversaries have made considerable steps towards returning astronauts to the Moon, with NASA successfully completing a flyby with its Orion spacecraft, setting the stage for the first crewed landing attempt since Apollo 17 in 1972.

China has also successfully sent three landers, including two rovers, to the lunar surface, becoming only the third country to softly land on the Moon ten years ago, following the United States and the Soviet Union.

While Russia and China have announced joint plans to establish a research station near the Moon's lunar south pole in the 2030s, it's anybody's guess whether those plans will end up panning out. Given the dramatic rise of its space program, China certainly has political and financial reasons to embark on the mission without Russia.

There are plenty of signs the relationship between the two nations is already strained, from awkwardly overlapping plans to explore the south pole to China actively looking for new international collaborators.

In short, the demise of the Luna-25 mission — which was meant to follow up on the Soviet Union's Luna-24 mission in 1976, the USSR's third successful sample return mission — is the last thing Russia's space program needs right now.

Over three decades following the dissolution of the USSR, Russia joins a growing number of countries that have launched lunar landing missions that unceremoniously crash-landed, including Israel, India, and Japan.

That's also in stark contrast to the country's lofty stated goals, from 3D-printed Moon bases to futuristic observatories designed to keep an eye out for dangerous asteroids.

Of course, Russia isn't simply giving up, and Luna-26 and Luna-27 missions are already in the works. But as Ars Technica points out, nobody really knows when they'll actually launch, given Luna-25's considerable delays.

In the longer term, whether the country still has a shot to revive its ailing space program and return it to its former Soviet Union-era glory is anybody's guess.

But the space race is already well underway — and Russia's already falling way behind.

More on Luna-25: Russia Sends Back Photos From Trip to Moon

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