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Russian Commission Still Mystified by Cause of Proton Rocket Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-May-2014
Updated: 20-May-2014 11:23 PM

The Russian commission investigating the Proton rocket failure on May 15, 2014 Eastern Daylight Time (May 16 local time in Russia) remains mystified by the cause of the third-stage malfunction.

Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency reports today (May 20) that the head of the investigative commission, Alexander Danilyuk of Tsniiimash, said the guidance system "operated fault-free" and that the commission also ruled out "miscalculation."  Meanwhile, RIA Novosti cited Russian space agency head Oleg Ostapenko as saying that a sharp pressure drop was detected in the third stage control engine's piping, but the reason is unknown.

The Proton rocket's third stage failed during launch of a Russian government communications satellite, Express-AM4R.   The third stage, the satellite, and the Briz-M upper stage all fell to Earth, mostly or completely burning up in the atmosphere.

Proton had a reputation as a very reliable rocket until a series of failures beginning in 2010.   Itar-Tass reported yesterday that since 2001, 74 of 82 Proton launches were successful, a success rate of 90 percent.  Of the eight failures, five were launching Russian government satellites and three were commercial launches arranged by International Launch Services, which markets the Proton rocket globally. 

The next Proton launch is scheduled for June 20, but may be postponed.  Ostapenko said decisions on each future launch will be taken individually and that "we will take all possible administrative and technical measures to avoid such incidents in the future."

This was the 12th Russian rocket failure since December 2010 (see a SpacePolicyOnline.com list of those failures), involving not only Proton, but Soyuz, Rokot, and Zenit rockets.   The Russian government has fired both industry and government officials (including Ostapenko's two predecessors) and reorganized its space industry in reaction to these failures, but they persist. 

Ostapenko hinted that more staff changes may be in the works.   He just took over as head of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, in October, replacing Vladimir Popovkin, who was fired after two years of trying fix the problems in the Russian space industry seen as the root cause of the failures.  Popovkin had been named Roscosmos director in 2011 after his predecessor, Anatoly Perminov, was fired when he was unable to stem the string of launch failures.

In addition to firing Popovkin in October, the Russian government announced a major reorganization of the aerospace industry that includes creation of a United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC, or ORKK in Russian) to consolidate Russia's major space companies.   Speaking at the Berlin Air Show today, URSC's head, Igor Komarov, said there was a "serious systematic crisis" at Khrunichev, which manufactures the Proton rocket.  He said the consolidation of the industry would require 5-7 years and would be a major feature of the government's $52 billion space program through 2020.


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