Russia's Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft

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Russia -- as part of the Soviet Union -- was a pioneer and leader in space

Recent problems have eroded confidence in Moscow's space program

Moscow CNN  — 

Ever since the Cold War-era space race with the United States, Russia has taken immense national pride in its cosmic exploits.

It was a Soviet satellite – Sputnik 1 – that was the first, in 1957, to break out of Earth’s gravitational grip.

1960 witnessed the first living creatures make it into orbit and back again. Soviet space dogs, Belka and Strelka, are still widely celebrated for their achievement – although the memory of the grey rabbit, 42 mice, two rats, and numerous flies that accompanied them on their extraterrestrial journey has faded.

The following year, in 1961, a Soviet cosmonaut pipped the Americans into space. Yuri Gagarin became a household name and a potent symbol of what the Kremlin would have seen as Communist superiority over the West.

But in recent years that confidence has been challenged by a catalogue of embarrassing setbacks.

In April, Russian ground staff lost control of an unmanned cargo spacecraft on a supply mission to the International Space Station.

Contact was never re-established with the $30 million Progress 59 freighter, which was sent spinning at terrific speeds before burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

Last month, another Russian rocket mission, this time carrying a Mexican satellite, went wrong minutes after launch from the Baikonor Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

It crashed in Siberia, raising more questions about the reliability of Russia’s space program. Some commercial satellite operators have already started to take their business elsewhere.

Battered reputation

For decades, Russia has been a byword for reliability in space technology. Solid, Soviet-era equipment has been the mainstay of space exploration. But recently, the reputation has taken a severe battering. And not just in space, but on the ground as well.

READ: $1.8B disappears in Russian space program

There’s the case of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East – a new high-tech launch site. It’s the country’s biggest construction project, costing nearly $6 billion and designed to blast Russia’s space program into the 21st century.

The Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft is rolled out to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in March.

But it’s mired in scandal. There have been numerous government-led corruption probes into missing funds.

And there has even been a hunger strike by unpaid workers. One of the disgruntled workers was permitted to personally ask the Russian President to intervene in the dispute, during a nationally televised open-mic event earlier this year.

Vladimir Putin assured him and the country, that the problems would be ironed out.

“We’ll take it under our double control, you on the site and I here from Moscow,” he said. “All the slip-ups in the construction and pay delays are absolutely inadmissible and will certainly not be tolerated.”

But analysts of the Russian space program say the real problem goes far deeper than a few construction holdups.

Funding for space exploration has been slashed. But it’s the prestige – not the financing – of the old Soviet program that is missed most.

Lack of ambition

Unlike the Soviet program, critics say Russia’s space industry lacks ambition.

There are no trips to Mars on the horizon, no exploration of deep space planned.

And unless that changes, the Best of the Best – the scientists and the engineers – may choose to stay away, and Russia’s dream of reviving the glories of its space-exploration past may never truly blast off.