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Proton M failure flags up unreliability of Russian space programme

The post-mortem is under way on the spectacular 2 July Proton M rocket failure at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which destroyed the launch vehicle and its payload of three of Russia's Glonass navigation satellites.

But while it may be months before the cause of the incident is determined, what is certain even today is that the reliability of the Proton M rocket - a mainstay of Russia's space programme - lags far behind its Western peers.

Whereas, say, the European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rocket can boast a reliability rate of more than 94% over 69 launches, and the Boeing-United Launch Alliance Delta IV has achieved nearly 96% over 22 launches, Proton M is running at less than 90% over 74 flights (see chart).

Moreover, Ariane 5 suffered all four of its failures in its first 14 attempts, suggesting that problems were ironed out early and justifying claims by ESA, prime contractor Astrium and launch services provider Arianespace of supreme reliability. Proton's failures, by contrast, have come throughout its lifetime.

According to Flightglobal's Ascend SpaceTrak database, this Proton launch failure is the fifth in the last four years. Likewise, over the last 10 Proton flights there have been three failures - a 30% failure rate. Of all heavy-lift rockets operating today, only Russia's Proton M and Zenit have had any failures in their most recent 10 missions.

According to Proton M's manufacturer, the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre, an emergency shutdown occurred 17sec into the flight, and the launcher hit the ground inside the cosmodrome's territory, about 2.5km from the launch pad; there were no apparent injuries or any destruction of ground facilities.

Many Proton failures have been attributable to the upper stage, which pushes the payload(s) into final orbit, rather than the main launcher. But in this case investigation will focus on the main engines, one of which can be seen in video of the accident smoking in the seconds before the launcher veered off course. Also, there is some indication that this particular launcher was powered by RD-276 engines, which had not before been used on this particular variant of Proton M.

GETTING SERIOUS?

That the Russians take failure seriously is in no doubt. The investigation into the 2 July loss is being headed by no less than Alexander Lopatin, deputy head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Following a Proton M failure on 6 August 2012, Russian prime minister Dimitry Medvedev gave space industry officials an ultimatum to improve reliability - and within the month Khrunichev boss Vladimir Nesterov had handed in his resignation.

International Launch Services, the US-based Krunichev subsidiary that markets Proton commercially, said that following the commission's findings, it will conduct its own Failure Review Oversight Board with representatives from ILS customers, insurance underwriters and technical experts, "to review the commission's findings and corrective action plan, in accordance with US and Russian government export control regulations".

But fixing the problem may take much more than lighting fires under industry bosses. Western observers regularly pay high praise to Russian engineering, and the basic design of space hardware such as Proton is regarded as sound. Analysis of the Proton failure record shows, however, a scattering of diverse failure points, suggesting the problem lies in quality control.

Such a management problem may prove more difficult to resolve than any design fault, as oversight shortcomings appear to pervade the Russian space programme. In November 2011, for example, Roscosmos attempted to put Russia back in the interplanetary exploration game with an ambitious mission to fly to the Martian moon Phobos and bring home a sample of extra-terrestrial soil. Unfortunately, the Phobos-Grunt mission - aboard a Zenit-2SB rocket - was left stranded in Earth orbit owing to computer failure and later crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The cause was determined to be computer failure, stemming from the use of electronic components that had not been qualified for spaceflight.

Whatever technical fault is ultimately assigned to the latest launch calamity, the incident may provide Roscosmos, Krunichev and the Russian government with the motivation to dissect the structure of an industry which is clearly failing to perform in line with its international rivals. As one Western observer with direct experience of partnering Russian companies in aerospace projects recently told Flightglobal, Russian industry has been restructuring for two decades but remains a child of its Soviet roots. Before 1992, he observes, the practice of separating design bureaux from semi-autonomous manufacturing plants was reasonably successful, but the collapse of firm central control left the two sides operating without adequate co-ordination.

Moreover, in Soviet times the industry operated in a winner-take-all system; companies that won a programme contract enjoyed all its benefits and locked rivals out. By contrast, he notes, Western companies have for decades been operating both as competitors and collaborators, with the result that a fluid ecosystem of customers, contractors and suppliers provides increasing product reliability. Russia, he says, has made comparitively little progress towards such a model.

As the 2 July fireball at Baikonur makes abundantly clear, however, spaceflight rarely accommodates half measures.

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