Another Launch Failure for Russia

Communications Satellite Fails to Reach Orbit

A Russian Soyuz-2.1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage failed on Friday, sending the Meridian-5 satellite crashing into the atmosphere over Siberia instead of soaring into orbit. The failure capped off a tough year for Russian rocket launch crews, who have watched seven rockets fail with eight satellites destroyed or stranded in useless orbits since last December.

For those of you just joining us, here’s Russia’s record of failed launches over the last year (reader discretion advised):

Date

Rocket

Upper Stage

Payload

Result

Cause

Dec. 5, 2010ProtonBlock-DM3 GLONASS satellitesCrashed in Pacific OceanUpper stage overfilled with fuel making it too heavy to send satellites into orbit
Feb. 1, 2011RockotBreeze-KMGEO-IK 2Stranded in useless orbitFailed restart of upper stage
Aug. 18, 2011ProtonBreeze-MExpress-AM4Stranded in useless orbitUpper stage under performance
Aug. 24, 2011Soyuz-UBlock-IProgress M-12M freighterBurned up over SiberiaBlocked fuel line in third stage
Sept. 27, 2011ICBM (Possibly Avangard)Missile failed during initial test, crashed 5 miles from launch siteFailure of first stage
Nov. 9, 2011ZenitFregat (modified)Phobos-GruntStranded in Earth orbitFregat upper stage failed to fire, reason Unknown
Dec. 23, 2011Soyuz-2.1bFregatMeridian-5Re-entered over SiberiaUnknown (possible upper-stage failure)

A couple of comments here:

It looks like quality control on upper stages has been a significant problem. Hopefully, if that gets fixed with greater oversight, that issue will go away. However, these failures likely point to systemic problems with the Russian space industry, which is beset by an aging workforce and a lack of replacement workers. Throwing money — or inexperienced workers — at these problems doesn’t always work.

My sympathies to our Russian colleagues on your difficulties. This was the year to celebrate your greatest triumph in space by marking the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into the cosmos. Instead, you have had an awful year of repeated failures while at the same time you’ve been burdened — due to American ineptitude — with sole responsibility for crew rotation to the International Space Station. No one should have to suffer like that. It is my sincere that you can get your proud program back on track.

Second, a message to Congress: get your heads out of your butts. Our entire human spaceflight program — and our $100 billion, 28 year investment in the space station — is dependent upon a single transportation system that is looking increasingly shaky. You didn’t cause this problem, but your refusal to sufficiently fund the commercial crew program is going to continue that reliance for even longer than necessary. If this string of failures doesn’t wake you up to what a bad idea that is, nothing will.

And please give NASA enough funding to afford an Atlas V launch for the ExoMars program so we’re not dependent upon the Russians. In addition to recent launch failures, their history of Martian exploration is a nearly unblemished record of failure for more than 50 years.

Yes, it’s a tough call in a difficult fiscal environment. But, the money will be spent at home to pay hard-working Americans to build one of the most reliable rockets in the world in support of the most successful Mars exploration program in history. And the chance of mission success goes up. It’s really a win-win-win-win-win-win-win situation.