Outside Experts to Examine Khrunichev Operations as Investigators Zero in on Cause of Proton Failure

Another fine day for Russia's space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.
Another fine day for Russia’s space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.

A special outside group of experts is being established to review the manufacturing chain at the Khrunichev State Space Research Center as investigators found a likely culprit for what caused one of the company’s Proton rockets to crash shortly after launch last week from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

“We’re setting up a technology inspecting group now that will include experts from other aerospace companies, the ones who are not linked to the causes of the accident in any way, not the Krunichev Center people,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told Echo of Moscow radio. “They will inspect the whole technological chain at the enterprise where the Proton M rocket was manufactured.”

Khrunichev produces the Proton rocket and several models of upper stages that have contributed to a string of Russian launch mishaps dating back to December 2010. Rogozin is the Kremlin’s aerospace and defense czar who is responsible for trying to revamp these inefficient and corruption plagued sectors.

Meanwhile, Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com reports that investigators have found a likely culprit for the Proton’s latest failure:

By July 9, it is transpired that investigators sifting through the wreckage of the doomed rocket had found critical angular velocity sensors, DUS, installed upside down. Each of those sensors had an arrow that was suppose to point toward the top of the vehicle, however multiple sensors on the failed rocket were pointing downward instead. As a result, the flight control system was receiving wrong information about the position of the rocket and tried to “correct” it, causing the vehicle to swing wildly and, ultimately, crash. The paper trail led to a young technician responsible for the wrong assembly of the hardware, but also raised serious issues of quality control at the Proton’s manufacturing plant, at the rocket’s testing facility and at the assembly building in Baikonur. It appeared that no visual control of the faulty installation had been conducted, while electrical checks had not detected the problem since all circuits had been working correctly.

That young technician’s career at Khrunichev is likely over. He may also end up in jail for up to three years. Officials have launched a criminal probe designed to punish everyone held responsible for the $200 million launch failure and loss of three GLONASS navigation satellites.

How this will help the Rusisan industry’s efforts to train and recruit a new generation of aerospace workers to replace its aging workforce is a bit of mystery. Salaries in the industry are low, and if you make a major error, you will likely end up in jail.

Rogozin has said that the Proton was completed and delivered to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 2011. This was before he replaced the current quality control system, which Rogozin has blamed for putting quantity over quality, with a military-run operation that he said had performed better during the Soviet era.

This explanation provides hope that the number of launch failures will diminish in the future as quality inspections improve and older boosters are used up. However, it doesn’t address whether additional checks were done on the Proton that had failed. Or whether such checks might have caught the faulty installation that doomed the rocket and its payloads.

Russia is looking to phase out operations of the Proton rocket with the debut of the new Angara launch vehicle. The long-delayed replacement, which has been under development since 1995, is set to make its debut launch sometime in 2014. The inaugural launch will test the light version of the rocket. The larger Angara designed to replace the heavy-lift Proton won’t fly until later on.

Angara is hardly a solution to the failure-prone Proton. It is a new rocket that still needs to be fully tested to work out any flaws. It is also built by Khrunichev, which has been responsible for multiple launch failures over the last three years.

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  • Nickolai

    The larger Angara is actually set to debut not long after the flight of the smaller one. AFAIK, both rockets are built and they’re waiting on launch pad issues. They both have many systems in common (that was a design goal), and so by testing the smaller one first they’re reducing risk when the larger one flies, which would probably be within a year of when the smaller one flies barring any catastrophic issues (*knocks on wood*)

  • Douglas Messier

    All true. I just keep hearing that the launch pad issues will be resolved in one year, then it shifts to the next and then shifts again. The latest estimate is the first flight has now slipped in Fourth Quarter 2014. I don’t know if that’s a fiscal year or calendar year. I’m not even sure what the Russian fiscal year is.

    Whatever the case, the long delays on ground infrastructure at Plesetsk are puzzling. It’s almost as if the military doesn’t want the new rocket and the thing keeps slipping down on the list of priorities.