Russian rocket failures raise fears for future manned launches
The successive launch failures of Russia’s two primary workhorse rocket boosters may be indicators of systemic quality and management problems in the Russian space industry. The failures are threatening its dominance in the multibillion dollar global launch market and undermining confidence in the Russian space program, long a source of national pride.
Last week, a Proton rocket—the launch vehicle for many of the world’s unmanned satellites and the primary cash cow for the Russian space industry since the Soviet collapse—developed problems in its third-stage engine eight minutes into the flight, resulting in the loss of a Mexican communications satellite. The cause of the setback hasn’t been determined, but this latest Proton failure is the seventh in 4 ½ years. Previous accidents have been attributed to manufacturing flaws and human error.
On April 28, just a few weeks prior to the Proton rocket failure, Russia’s second main booster rocket, the Soyuz, suffered a breakdown in its third stage. The unmanned Progress cargo ship it was carrying was stranded in low orbit and fell to Earth over the Pacific, depriving the six-person International Space Station crew of needed supplies.
Russian officials put launches on hold while they attempt to ensure the Soyuz rocket, used to launch both the manned Soyuz spacecraft and the Progress cargo ships, is safe to put the next crew in orbit.
In an effort to reorganize the Russian space industry, which has seen numerous shakeups in recent years, the Kremlin last week proposed a bill that would pull all the nation’s space assets together in one giant state-controlled commercial corporation. But critics have pointed to other, similar efforts by Putin to nationalize Russian industries, saying these state conglomerates suffer from mismanagement and inefficiency and are dogged by corruption.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, whose portfolio includes both space and defense, said a recent investigation into the activities of the Khrunichev company, the manufacturer of the heavy-lift Proton booster rocket, revealed numerous instances of fraud, abuse of office, and falsification of documents, resulting in economic damage of 9 billion rubles (more than $180 million).
“With such degradation in the leadership, a high accident rate isn’t a surprise,” Rogozin said.
Low morale has also plagued the Russian space industry. Workers building a new launch facility in eastern Russia report going without pay for months. According to AFP, Rogozin told the Russian Duma that many engineers working in the industry make only 30,000 rubles per month (about $600 at current exchange rates) and are able to make ends meet only by living in dormitories far from Moscow.
But most observers agree the likely root cause of the recent rocket failures is plunging quality standards.
“It’s a personnel problem above all,” said Konstantin Kreidenko, a former space official who is now editor of Glonass Vestnik, a space magazine. “It could be a wrong cable connection, or use of bad fuel or some filter getting clogged. They need to check the entire chain and introduce stringent quality controls.”
Problems with the Soyuz rocket already pose challenges to the International Space Station program, which relies entirely on the Soyuz spacecraft for ferrying crews since the grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet. Although the space station crew won’t experience any immediate shortages as a result of the Progress cargo ship loss, the Soyuz launch failure has delayed by more than a month the scheduled return to Earth of three crew members.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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