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The architecture of the Blagovest military communications satellite slated to fly on Proton in 2017. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visits Voronezh Mechanical Plant on Jan. 28, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian government
|Proton grounded by poor quality control
Russia's most powerful operational rocket faces a new ban on all its launches for at least a half a year, as the nation's space officials try to sort out egregious quality control problems within the industry. Media and unofficial sources in Moscow report that Roskosmos State Corporation recalled all the engines of the Proton rocket in the wake of serious violations of their manufacturing procedures. As a result, Russia begins 2017 with practically its entire rocket fleet grounded.
From 2001 to 2016, Proton flew 129 missions, 12 of which had failed.
The Proton rocket last launched on June 9, 2016, delivering the Intelsat-31 communications satellite into a geostationary orbit. The mission was declared a success, but multiple unofficial sources and available flight data pointed at technical problems during the operation of the second stage. The Proton remained grounded for the rest of 2016 and its return to flight has been continuously delayed first to January and then to February 2017.
In January, increasingly gloomy rumors about the state of affairs with Proton and its manufacturer -- GKNPTs Khrunichev -- circulated on the Internet, however the company vehemently denied any serious problems with the rocket. On January 23, the Kazakh-based division of the Interfax news agency reported the likelihood of an unusually lengthy delay with Proton missions, which could last several months. A day later, the Kommersant newspaper reported that a recent firing test had revealed technical problems with RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines, which propel the second and third stage of the Proton rocket respectively. The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine's components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. The report in the Kommersant echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.
On Jan. 20, 2017, Head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov chaired a meeting of the top managers at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, which manufactures rocket engines, including those used on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket and on the second and third stages of Proton. The high-profile meeting followed a decision to return already manufactured RD-0110 engines from Soyuz rockets back to Voronezh, after such an engine had been suspected as the culprit in the loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship on Dec. 1, 2016, as it ascended to orbit onboard a Soyuz-U rocket.
According to Roskosmos, Ivan Koptev, Director General at VMZ, resigned due to poor quality control at the company and the January 20 meeting resulted in several decisions aimed at improving the production quality at VMZ. According to Kommersant, at the same meeting, Roskosmos also made the decision to recall dozens of Proton engines built at VMZ during the past several years. It also initiated a quality control audit at VMZ conducted by a team of experts from another leading Russian rocket propulsion company -- NPO Energomash in Moscow.
Under the most optimistic scenario, the Proton could now reach the launch pad no earlier than June or July. As a result, Moscow found both of its main space transportation systems -- Soyuz and Proton -- grounded by quality control problems. To make matters worse, other rockets in the Russian fleet -- Zenit, Dnepr and Rockot -- were essentially lost to the conflict with Ukraine. The grounding of the Russian rocket fleet came at the time of increasing competition on the commercial launch market, making the recovery measures even more urgent.
On January 27, the European consortium Arianespace launched a Soyuz-ST rocket, restoring some confidence in at least one Russian-built rocket series and providing a morale boost for the beleaguered industry.
Despite major investments in the past decade, the companies comprising Roskosmos State Corporation continue suffering from brain drain, mismanagement, poor quality control and corruption. The latest high-profile problems with Proton are backdropped by many other lesser known issues across the industry, including at GKNPTs Khrunichev. For example, the company mismanaged the assembly of the Multi-purpose Laboratory Module, MLM, for the International Space Station, and the development of the new-generation Angara rocket. Both projects ended up nearly two decades behind schedule. After two successful launches in 2014, the Angara is nowhere to be seen and Khrunichev remains tight-lipped about its flight schedule. According to unofficial reports, the second Angara-5 rocket, which was assembled at the company's brand-new manufacturing base in Siberia, ended up being unfit for flight due to defects. In the meantime, the company's present and former employees posted a number of revealing accounts on the Internet telling tales of mismanagement and corruption behind closed doors...
On January 28, 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, where he chaired a meeting of Roskosmos management. He announced that launches of Proton rockets would be resumed in three and a half months and all those responsible for falsifying production process and documentation at VMZ would be severely punished. He confirmed that engines on the second and third stage of Proton rockets would be replaced and that VMZ would receive "economic aid" for modernization.
In March, managers at Roskosmos and GKNPTs Khrunichev reviewed the provisional flight manifest for the Proton, should the repair work on the rocket's second- and third-stage engines be successful. In the meantime, officials from the International Launch Services, ILS, which markets Proton to commercial customers, briefed representatives of the EchoStar satellite operator on the details of the engine recall and the corrective measures. The company's EchoStar-21 communications satellite was the first in line for launch on the Proton and the EchoStar's decision to proceed was crucial for the return to flight date and the subsequent flight schedule for Russia's workhorse rocket during the rest of 2017.
Contingent on the success of the corrective actions, Russian officials hoped to return Proton to flight with the Echostar-21 satellite in May. According to the Russian press, this launch was previously expected as early as April 29.
Proton's commercial missions should continue with the launch of a communications satellite for the Spanish satellite operator Hispasat in July and by the Asiasat-9 satellite in October. In addition, the Roskosmos State Corporation and the Russian military planned up to four Proton missions in 2017, most likely, starting with the launch of the Blagovest No. 11L satellite for military communications between June and September. Another classified military payload could also be launched before the end of the year. In addition, one Proton-M rocket with a Block DM-03 upper stage was being maintained in high degree of readiness for an on-demand launch with a trio of Uragan satellites to replenish Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system.
Officials familiar with Proton operations stressed that the rocket's current flight manifest was provisional and would be driven entirely by the corrective actions on the engines and their re-certification for flight.
Upcoming Proton missions as of March 2017:
Read (and see) much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 24, 2017
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: January 25, 2017
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