Russian Prime Minister to Convene Meeting on "Crisis" in Space Industry Next Week

Russian Prime Minister to Convene Meeting on "Crisis" in Space Industry Next Week

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will convene a meeting next week to discuss the “crisis” in the Russian space industry following Monday’s Proton rocket failure according to Russia’s Itar-Tass news service. 

Itar-Tass calls the current situation a “deep crisis,” estimating that the failure of the Proton’s Briz upper stage represents a loss of 6-8 billion rubles.  The Proton-Briz vehicle was intended to place two satellites into geostationary orbit: Indonesia’s Telkom-3 and Russia’s Ekspress-MD2.  The latter was built by Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which also builds the Proton rocket and Briz upper stage.  “However, Russia is losing not only money, but also the reputation of the country,” Itar-Tass lamented.

Russia was the leading global commercial launch provider last year, with 56 percent of the market according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Europe was second with 22 percent.  The United States had no commercial launches in 2011.

Russia’s RIA Novosti reports that the satellites were insured by Russian Ingosstrakh and Alfa Strakhovanie:  1.17 billion rubles for Ekspress-MD2 and 225 million rubles for Telkom 3.  (1 ruble = 0.03 $US)

Russian Proton rocket with Briz upper stage.

Photo credit: Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center via RIA Novosti.

Russia’s typically reliable launch vehicle fleet has experienced an unusual number of failures since December 2010 when another Proton launch failure doomed three Russian GLONASS navigation satellites.  Five more failures of various rockets followed in 2011 — including the Proton launch of another Ekspress satellite almost exactly a year ago — sparking personnel changes at Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and elsewhere in the space industry.  Roscosmos Director Anatoly Perminov was one of those fired.  His replacement, Vladimir Popovkin, was assigned to fix what was wrong, but spent most of the year dealing with more and more failures including the very high profile Phobos-Grunt loss in November.   A December 2011 failure was the last straw for the top levels of the Russian government and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was appointed to investigate the industry and come up with solutions.

Popovkin has held on to his job so far, but it appears that changes he instituted to avoid launch failures have not worked.  Itar-Tass cites Rogozin as saying that Medvedev will convene a special meeting next week “at which the current tense situation in the Russian space industry will be discussed in detail.”  Rumors are that the jobs of Khrunichev’s leadership may not be safe either.  Russian analysts quoted by Itar-Tass point out, however, that it simply is not possible to rectify longstanding problems in the space industry in just a few months.

Proton launches have been suspended while the root causes of the failure are determined.  Historically, such stand-downs are not long lasting. cites Roscosmos as reporting that the upper stage engine operated for only seven seconds instead of 18 minutes 4 seconds as planned.


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