Loss of Proton

ArabSat 4B Launch campaign. The Proton-M, with...

ArabSat 4B Launch campaign. The Proton-M, with Breeze-M upper stage and the payload, arrive at Pad No. 39. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oops.

This is not good.

Even though the crash of the Proton third stage with the Mexsat 1 satellite probably has no connection whatsoever to the loss of the Progress cargo delivery to the ISS, it still looks like two failed Russian launches in something like three weeks. They don’t need that.

In case you haven’t already heard, a Russian Proton launch vehicle had some kind of stage separation failure on Saturday (May 16th) and turned a Mexican communications satellite into a pretty light show over Siberia…instead of delivering it into orbit. Sorry, Mexico.

The fact is, this particular launch vehicle has had a lot of problems. Folks should not automatically lump it in with Progress or Soyuz. They will, but it is a different organization, different issues (presumably), different companies, and different quality control systems. Still, ROSCosmos has delayed the next Soyuz 2 months because of the Progress failure a couple of weeks ago as they investigate that incident. It’s a good thing that the Progress space craft currently docked at the the International Space Station was able to start its engines and raise the station’s orbit today (5/19/15). It couldn’t on Saturday.

But here’s the thing, unlike Progress and Soyuz, Proton competes in a very active industry against several other companies who are achieving far better launch success trends than Proton.

International Launch Services, the joint Russian-U.S. company who oversaw this launch, is already struggling against ULA, Arianspace, and others. Now the lower-priced SpaceX, who with its recent engine upgrades is now launching a larger class of telcom satellites, and in a few months will have the first flight of their new heavy launcher, is deep into that market too. Reliability (measured in terms of success history), and experience are the biggest things the old players have going for them today. Launch failures are bad for business, in a business that for ROSCosmos is already not nominal.

Russia is developing more modern heavy-lift rockets, but their current line of launchers has to keep flying until the new launchers are ready. They have to keep up their launch frequency in order to maintain the cost-effectiveness of their rocket building and launching infrastructure overall.

That snarky comment from a Russian politico about NASA astronauts needing a trampoline to get to the International Space station was probably bad for ILS’ business also. But might there come a day when a U.S. Congressperson gets to say that back to the Russians? We shall see.

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~ by Bill Housley on May 16, 2015.

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