Spaceflight Insider

Problems continue to plague Russian space program

Proton-M rocket launch with the Intelsat-31/DLA-2 satellite.

Proton-M rocket launch with the Intelsat-31/DLA-2 satellite. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Russia’s space program has encountered numerous problems in recent years that has put its reliability into question. Russia’s space program had been robust for decades until things started to decline during the past ten years.

The Proton-M rocket, used as a satellite launch workhorse for Roscosmos, has failed nine times since 2007, including a spectacular July 2, 2013, crash just 32 seconds after liftoff where the booster went out of control and flew back toward the ground and exploded just a short distance from the launch pad.

Proton-M carrying three GLONASS-M navigation satellites explodes after the launch failure. Photo Credit: TsENKI TV

According to Roscosmos, the cause of that particular failure was three Blocks of Damper Gyroscopes (BDG) that were installed incorrectly. The BDGs were responsible for providing navigational information to the Proton’s flight control system. The BDGs in question were installed rotated 180 degrees from their correct position. The bad data they relayed to the flight control system caused the rocket to veer out of control and crash.

In a press conference held after the investigation of the crash had concluded, the investigation commission chairman, Aleksandr Lopatin, stated that installation procedures for this assembly were not properly documented. Also, numerous inspections that were supposed to have taken place post installation apparently were not done as the logs were not signed.

Installing the BDGs 180 degrees out is not an easy mistake to make; there were documented procedures and equipment required to be used for the assembly and to accomplish the improper installation.

“The sensors fit in special slots, and thanks to this they can only be installed in one position,” an unidentified law enforcement source told Izvestia and reported in The Moscow Times. “However, if you apply force, a sensor can be put into the space upside down.”

Problems with the Proton-M rocket continued in May of 2015 when the launch of the MexSat-1 communications satellite failed after an anomaly with the third stage resulting in the loss of the spacecraft. In May 2016, the launch of the Intelsat-31 satellite has declared a success; however, rumors of an issue with the second stage circulated and the Proton-M has been grounded ever since.

Roscosmos’ other workhorse rocket, the Soyuz, has also had its share of mishaps of late, with the latest being a Progress resupply mission to the International Space Station that failed to reach orbit after its December 1, 2016, launch following an anomaly with the Soyuz upper stage. This failure was similar to April 28, 2015, Progress mission to the ISS, which also failed to reach orbit, and again the issue appears to have been caused by an upper stage malfunction.

Soyuz-FG rocket launch with the MS-01 spacecraft

A Soyuz-FG launch with the MS-01 spacecraft. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

In the past three years, six launch failures have occurred between the two launch vehicles. Fortunately, to date, none of the manned Soyuz launches have had catastrophic failures. The Russian Space Agency currently charges NASA close to $80 million for each astronaut it transports to the ISS. Cargo and crew use different versions of the Soyuz rocket; however, both versions share the problematic third stage which doomed last December’s resupply mission.

A March 30, 2017, report appearing on The Moscow Times noted that of some 71 engines, mostly used to power second and third stages of the Proton rocket, required complete overhauls to remove defects.

The upper stages that have failed are all different designs and produced by different manufacturers. There have been mechanical issues identified by Roscosmos, such as in the case of the MexSat-1 failure, which was traced to the unauthorized substitution of special heat-resistant alloys utilized in the engine’s components with less expensive but inferior materials that are, consequently, prone to failure.

Other issues identified from other failures include poor documentation and poor quality control. While these issues would appear to be easily resolved, there could be several reasons for why that isn’t happening and, perhaps, why the problems were encountered in the first place.

Voronezh Mechanical Plant is a Russian engine and heavy machinery manufacturing plant that builds not only rocket and aircraft parts but also train engines as well as gas and oil equipment. They are currently the sole manufacturing facility for the second and third stages for the Proton-M rocket along with some upper stages for different Soyuz rocket variants.

One issue that faces the Russian aerospace industry is getting new workers to enter the workforce in the first place. Improvements designed to entice new workers to the industry, including but not limited to better pay, does not seem to have accomplished that goal. Many potential employees are still opting to go into different industries which offer more lucrative pay and benefits, or they are simply emigrating to other countries where better opportunities exist.



Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.

Reader Comments

Rodger Raubach

Before these recent incidents, the Russian had a proud list of accomplishments.

Soviet Union had a proud list of accomplishments. Russian space program has not accomplished anything in all the time it existed. Since the fall of USSR, they have not developed a single new rocket, engine, or spacecraft. The only successful launch they made outside of Earth’s orbit was for a European mission.

The raise in salary is relative and still not even of an acceptable _order of magnitute_. Specialists in the Russian space industry are often expected to work in the periphery and be happy with local low wages. Only in February, Dmitry Rogozin remarked that the workers at that very Voronezh Mechanical Plant were earning $2000-$3000 A YEAR!

Russian has a declining population like much of the Western world. What we are seeing in Russia where the best and the brightest are having the fewest children is also being played out in all of the industrial world. Less capable children are being born in much less than replacement numbers. We can see economic decline world wide if this trend does not get turned around soon.

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