Proton has a fairly checkered history, going in fits and starts from the UR-500 program in the 1960s where it competed directly with the N-1 for funding, to the workhorse commercial heavy-lift rocket sold in the 21st Century by International Launch Alliance, a cooperative venture of RSC Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin. But it has had a number of very high profile failures, and it faces increasing frustration from Kazakhstan, the country that hosts its sole launch site, Baikonur Cosmodrome, because of the highly toxic propellants it relies upon — unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4).
It hasn’t had an accident since the loss of Mexsat-1 in 2015, which has led many to wonder why the launch of EchoStar 21 has been delayed so many times, each time due to unspecified technical issues. Originally slated to fly June 25 of last year, it’s been delayed to August 29, October 10, November 23, December 22, December 28, and January 31. And now Proton has been grounded another three and a half months by Roscosmos. Why?
Well, some information has come out now. Officials had test fired engines for the second and third stages and something went wrong during the test. This led to an investigation of the engine manufacturer, Voronezh Mechanical Plant (VMZ), which as it happens, is also the manufacturer of the Soyuz upper stage engines that were implicated in the loss of Progress MS-04 last month. The investigation of that mishap concluded that foreign object debris within the engines had caused the accident, although it could not determine the source of the FOD. Now, with the same engine manufacturer in the crosshairs for Proton engine problems, it seems likely that’s where the real problem lies.
And it’s ugly. In an unsettling parallel to the findings after the 2015 launch failure (which found substandard materials being used in turbopump shafts), they’ve found that unauthorized substitutions were made in the heat-resistant alloys used inside the engine — replacing precious elements with cheaper alternative — with paperwork falsified to cover this up, and presumably someone pocketing the savings. Roscosmos has ordered a complete quality control audit of VMZ, to be conducted by their archrival NPO Energomash (maker of the highly successful RD-170 engine family, a derivative of which has powered the Atlas V to a flawless operational record). Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited VMZ and promised funding to modernize VMZ’s facilities, but also threatened severe punishments for those found to have falsified documentation and violated process. It’s a typically Russian response, more stick than carrot, but given that the main problems have been systemic corruption and brain drain to other, less volatile industries (and, indeed, other countries), it’s unclear whether it can save Russia’s flagging space industry. As India, China, and Japan ramp up their commercial space efforts alongside old industry leaders in Europe and the United States as well as nascent commercial providers such as SpaceX, Russia faces serious challenges, with major new development now decades behind schedule as they largely continue to rely on 1960s designs and foreign investment to keep their manufacturers afloat. Already, they are scaling back their ISS involvement, and although this has been spun as work toward a new Russian space station, it’s questionable whether that will actually materialize. The MLM, their last ISS module, is now nearly a generation behind schedule. The Anagara rocket has flown twice, after having been promised since the 1990s, and the third Angara has been quietly rejected due to manufacturing defects. The Baikal reusable flyback booster for Angara, first shown at the Paris Air Show in the late 90s, has never gone beyond the paper-and-marketing-model stage. Russia’s new cosmodrome, Vostochny, meant to reduce reliance on Baikonur in the face of increasing opposition in Kazakhstan, has hosted just one launch so far, and was only completed very late and with the personal intervention of Vladimir Putin after the revelation of extensive embezzlement that had crippled construction work.
I’d like to be optimistic about Russian spaceflight; there is a long and rich history there, which includes some really sterling examples of success in defiance of very long odds, and some really brilliant innovation. But it has always been hampered by political interference that alternates between support and obstruction, making it very difficult for any long-term efforts to be successful, and most of the expertise of their glory days has long since retired, leaving few to mentor the next generation of engineers. Serious investment tends to come only very late, when programs are so severely behind the eight ball that they are on the verge of total disaster, and the punitive response to problems does not help the widespread culture of corruption and concealment.Here’s hoping they can get this turned around. Proton is a major player in the geosynchronous commsat launch market, and it has a significant backlog right now.