Years of Failures Haunt Russian Space Program

Holy shi'ski! The go KABOOMSKI! (Credit: Tsenki TV)
Proton rocket falls to Earth at Baikonur in July 2013. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

Sixteen botched launches in six years.

That’s the Russian space program’s sad record since May 2009. The failure of a Proton rocket earlier today with the loss of a Mexican communications satellite was yet another sign of the prolonged crisis affecting Russia’s once powerful space program.

The crash came less than three weeks after a botched launch left a Progress supply freighter spinning end over end like an extra point before it burned up in Earth atmosphere. There was also news today that another Progress cargo ship attached to the International Space Station failed to fire its engine as planned to boost the station’s orbit.

The list of Russian launch accidents over the last six years includes:

  • 13 complete failures resulting in the loss of all payloads;
  • 3 partial failures that left spacecraft in the wrong orbits;
  • complete loss of 20 spacecraft;
  • 6 Russian GLONASS navigation satellites destroyed; and,
  • an ambitious Mars mission left stranded in Earth orbit.

The table below shows the full extent of the damage.

May 21, 2009Soyuz-2.1a/ Fregat Meridian 2FailureSecond stage shut down early, Fregat upper stage ran out of fuel trying to compensate. Satellite left in useless orbit, declared a loss by Russian military.
Dec. 5, 2010Proton-M/ Blok-DM-3Uragan-M #739 Uragan-M #740
Uragan-M #741
FailureRocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.
Feb. 1, 2011Rokot/Briz-KMGeo-IK-2 No. 11FailureUpper stage malfunction.
Aug. 17, 2011Proton-M/ Briz-MEkspress AM4
FailureBriz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.
Aug. 24, 2011Soyuz-UProgress M-12FailureThird stage failure due to turbo-pump duct blockage.
Nov. 8, 2011Zenit-2SB/ FregatPhobos-Grunt
FailureSpacecraft stranded in Earth orbit after upper stage failed to fire.
Dec. 23, 2011Soyuz-2.1b/ FregatMeridian 5FailureThird stage failure.
Aug. 6, 2012Proton-M/ Briz-MTelkom-3
Ekspress MD2
FailureBriz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.
Dec. 8, 2012Proton-M/ Briz-M Yamal-402Partial FailureBriz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.
Jan. 15, 2013Rokot/Briz-KMKosmos 2482 Kosmos 2483 Kosmos 2484Partial FailureUpper stage failed near time of spacecraft separation; one satellite destroyed.
 Feb. 1, 2013Zenit-3SL
 Intelsat 27FailureFirst stage failure.
July 2, 2013Proton-M/DM-03 Uragan-M #748 Uragan-M #749
Uragan-M #750
FailureFirst stage failure.
 May 15, 2014Proton-M/Briz-M Ekspress AM4RFailureProton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.
Aug. 14, 2014Soyuz-STB/ FregatGalileo FOC-1
Galileo FOC-2
Partial FailureSatellites placed in wrong orbits due to freezing of hydrazine in Fregat upper stage.
 April 28, 2015Soyuz-2.1aProgress 59PFailureThird stage failure.
May 16, 2015Proton/Briz-MMexSat-1FailureThird stage failure suspected.

Proton has been the most troubled of the Russian boosters, with six failures, 1 partial failure and 11 spacecraft lost. One spacecraft was able to reach its intended orbit using on-board propulsion after the Proton rocket’s upper stage shut down prematurely.

Different variants of the venerable Soyuz booster have failed completely on four occasions, taking with them two Progress freighters and a pair of Meridian military communications satellites. Another Soyuz rocket stranded two European Galileo navigational satellites in the wrong orbits.

Russia’s Rokot launch vehicle suffered anomalies on two flights. In 2011, the Geo-IK-2 No.11 satellite was declared unusable after it was placed in the wrong orbit. Two years later, one of three satellites launched aboard a Rokot was lost due to a malfunction of the upper stage booster.

The trouble-plagued Zenit booster, which is a joint program with Ukraine, suffered two failures during the past six years. In 2011, Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars was left trapped in Earth orbit after the failure of its upper stage to fire. A failure of the Zenit’s Ukrainian-built first stage destroyed the Intelsat 27 communications satellite in 2013.

If there is a common thread in the accidents, it involves the failure of upper stages to either fire or to finish their burns as planned. The Briz-M, Briz-KM and Fregat upper stages have all been implicated in failures. Third stages of various boosters also have failed.

By contrast, the U.S. launch record has been much cleaner over the last six years. The nation has suffered three catastrophic launch failures, all involving Orbital ATK launch vehicles. Tauraus XL rockets failed in 2009 and 2011, destroying a pair of NASA environmental satellites. Last October, an Antares rocket exploded shortly after launch, destroying a Cygnus cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

The Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles, which are operated by United Launch Alliance, have suffered no catastrophic failures since they began operations in 2002.  Each rocket has experienced a partial failure, but they have otherwise proven to be extremely reliable. The highly reliable Delta II launch vehicle has not suffered a catastrophic failure in 18 years.

SpaceX has successfully launched variants of its Falcon 9 rocket 18 times without the loss of primary payloads. In October 2012, an Orbcomm OG2 test satellite was stranded in the wrong orbit when it flew as a secondary payload on a Dragon supply mission to the space station.

Europe’s Arianespace has not experienced a failure of its Ariane 5 booster since 2002. All four flights of its new Vega launch vehicle have been successful.

  • Kirk

    Windbourne> SpaceX … unmanned flight to space (which is by dec 2015), …

    Did you really mean 2015? Didn’t Shotwell say December 2016 back at the 26 January NASA / Boeing / SpaceX news conference? I understand that after the pad abort test Musk made some remark about no longer being sure if they would conduct the in-flight abort test before or after the first unmanned orbital flight, but they haven’t announced new dates for that flight, have they?

  • Michael J. Listner

    Where the hell did you get that from?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Windbourne, if we are going to argue a point, it has to be the same point. Although I am not a huge fan of spending public money to help establish a private, commercial enterprise, that is the path that the decisionmakers have chosen and I am not quibbling with it. I also agree that, having chosen that path, it is cheaper to subsidize development than to keep paying the Russians. My only point was that there is money available for these companies to continue and even accelerate development even in the face of budget cuts foisted off on us by the same neo-cons that you so consistently rail against. The question is whether they are committed enough to their projects to take it. Everybody will take a gift but the calculus changes when the money comes in the form of a loan.

  • Michael J. Listner

    The reason is that BA will be likely to push forward on starting to
    launch their space station within a year. And yes, the money is there
    to do it.

    Says who? Do you have an inside source of information to validate this, or are you blowing smoke out you a–. My guess it’s the latter.

  • cresshead

    launching rockets isn’t ‘easy” just ask nasa about their crew loss on the 2 shuttles compared to crew loss by russians

  • Arthur Hamilton

    There’s always the Chinese & their Soyuz copy. It has more interior space than the Russian Soyuz. The Russians will sort it out. Looks like the age of the Soyuz & Progress isn’t as bright as Rogozin once thought.

  • ‮‮‮

    AFAIR Khrunichev doesn’t rely on anything produced in Yuzhnoye or other Ukrainian companies for making 8K82M/8K82KM (Proton-M) or 14С43 (Briz-M) upper stages. And the parts for this launcher (which failed yesterday) were produced in 2013, mostly.

  • ‮‮‮

    Please keep in mind that russian space industry is in much worse shape than US one was even at the time of Challenger disaster. Negative selection of professionals did a lot of damage which is showing today.

  • Ildiko Ross

    if I had a buck for every time somebody mentions shuttle losses when another launcher fails, I’d be rich

  • MrFriendly B

    No worries 🙂

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Please be nice, my friend. I take your point but we often have to converse with zealots here. Sometimes I feel like an atheist at a Holy Roller convention. Windbourne is a more moderate type even when we disagree.

  • cresshead

    if I had a buck for every time somebody mentions ‘if i had a buck’ comment….well you get the idea!

  • Snofru Chufu

    O.K. thank you.

  • savuporo

    The reasons for the systematic failures are well known within the Russian space industry workforce. First, кувалда’s are not made to strict ГОСТ standards anymore, and the market value of ёб твою мать is far below the historical average.

  • Roncie Weatherington

    Seats and life support mentioned further below.
    The fact that we are discussing this scenario now usually means that NASA and SpaceX probably went through this a looong time ago, and may or may not actually have a contingency plan in place.
    We will just have to see how this entire situation shakes out.

  • Ildiko Ross

    tell me again what STS and Proton have in common?

  • Sure it is, except for the tiny little SLS and Orion problem NASA has.

    You just can’t hide a P.O.S. that big. Soon it will start to rot and smell.

  • DavidR2015

    So it could replace one out of two Soyuz then?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Expanding on your theme about always asking for more, I have seen sentiment in this forum that NASA should abandon the ISS and rent space on a Bigelow station – as a way to help foster the industry. There may come a day when that is advisable but first we have to see how Bigelow does as landlord. It is one thing to build the commercial space(station) but any landlord will tell you that your problems are only beginning once you start leasing out space. There’s no way Congress will subsidize maintenance at a privately-owned station and including the cost in the lease rate may make it financially unattractive compared with actually owning the station.
    It is really a shame that we don’t have a semi-permanent forum on this site where we can have a real discussion about all aspects of commercial space. There is too much of a “if you build it, they will come attitude” instead of “we have an important need that must be addressed and we can only address it in space.”

  • Terry Rawnsley

    They could have built Constellation. If they’d done that we may not have had any commercial space taxis but at least we wouldn’t have Orion and SLS to kick around.

  • Unfortunately bereft of content, science and technology, which kind of invalidates the reasoning. I can’t seem to remember anyone hopping on the Intel bandwagon back in the late sixties / early seventies either. Critical mass is imminent, especially when you consider the international ramifications of this thing.

  • Boeing is the outlier, but when you are dealing with wealthy individuals and their grandiose projects (some vanity projects, but not in this case), the general rule of thumb the contractor works by is – that at the outset you expect it will take twice and long and cost twice and much as was first calculated, and that throwing money at the problems are not very good decisions – that will not yield the desired result of quality of the final product.

    These are not guys that operate by your rules, Michael.

  • SLS and Orion are Constellation. They are building Constellation. Fortunately not Ares I and Altair, though.

  • Nickolai

    To my knowledge, Phobos-grunt was not due to a failure of the launch vehicle. In that case, the Zenit performed perfectly, but the payload itself was unable to accomplish its mission. That probably had less to do with decaying infrastructure and more to do with the fact that that project was very rushed. But I suppose it’s relevant to mention, at least as long as the context is clear!

    It may also be worth mentioning the issues they have had with the MLM. After Khrunichev delivered the module to Energiya, Energiya had to send it back due to a number of defects they found on it.

  • Douglas Messier

    The spacecraft never got out of orbit. Upper stage failed to fire.

  • Paul451

    Ares/Constellation schedule was slipping more than a year every year.

    As much as I dislike the waste inherent in SLS/Orion, the program is at least being better managed than under Griffin. (At least it’s only slipped one year every two or three.)

    (It makes me wonder what NASA could have done without the SLS noose around their necks, had Congress backed the 2010 Obama proposals: Tech development push, next gen engine program, commercial crew, and Orion-lite EELV.)

  • Paul451
  • Michael J. Listner

    There’s no way Congress will subsidize maintenance at a privately-owned
    station and including the cost in the lease rate may make it
    financially unattractive compared with actually owning the station.

    And that could very well be a Congressional concern with taxi services as well. When the operators get going will they be able to maintain their operations based on revenue generated from the flights or will Oliver come back looking for more, which basically will put Congress into a corner to either provide funding above and beyond fees for services or lose access to the ISS. Whether either companies are willing to put some of their own skin in the game to make up for the federal money shortfall could be telling.

  • ‮‮‮

    It wasn’t an upper stage, the launcher did its job. It was the spacecraft integrated propulsion system controlled by the on-board computer which failed to issue the departing burn command.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I’m fuzzy on the timeline so I will ask, if the entire Constellation program had been built as envisioned by the Bush Administration, would there have been any commercial manned space project?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    That is very possible. I’m afraid that we have put the cart before the horse regarding manned commercial flight. We need to first and foremost reduce the cost per pound of lifting people (and things) into orbit to make it commercially viable without subsidies. The rich cannot carry this industry and the middle and working classes cannot afford to either use or subsidize it.

  • Robert Gishubl

    If you want a unique capability you pay for its development. COTS originally had an option for carrying crew back when it started (2007?) but was never funded. If it had been SpaceX at least would have a manned craft available now and for a couple of years.
    As to funds being available, they may be now (but probably not without de-valuing the business) but when they were required several years ago SpaceX was still unproven so funds would not have been available for a speculative proposition of crew transport when the only existing customer was not part of the deal. Musk has already invested a lot of his own money into SpaceX and developing Falcon and Dragon (which he came close to going bust and abandoning with Falcon 1 initial failures) and much of his worth is the portion of SpaceX he owns so saying he should invest more is not realistic.
    There is not a major transport mode that the US government has not been involved in subsiding to get (or keep) US industry involved in so why should space transport be different?

  • Robert Gishubl

    Many outside the US have seen Road Runner but not everyone so it is a good idea to explain local references to those outside.
    Better to be safe than sorry.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    How could I forget that business card? 🙂 Thank you, Paul.

  • Michael J. Listner

    Not necessarily. Space X was still flying (and crashing) Falcon 1 in 2007. Falcon 9 didn’t fly until 2011. It’s easy to say ‘if I had the money I could have done it by now.’

  • Douglas Messier

    Based on a Fregat. Does it matter whether upper stage was separate or integrated with spacecraft? It still failed to get it out of earth orbit.

  • ‮‮‮

    Yes, it does if you want to be factually accurate in an article about launcher failures. It doesn’t if you want an article on (completely or partially) failed missions, but in that case it’s incomplete.

    > Based on a Fregat.
    It’s a totally different system which shares a little bit in common with Fregat (namely, main thruster and most of the tank design). Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a minor nitpick.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    BTW, this article is the authoritative source of American viewpoint now, Doug scores –

  • Snofru Chufu

    I heart that even some cables of Fobos-Grunt were re-soldered in last minute just before spacecraft integration into Zenit launcher, because some of the cables were wrong connected.

  • windbourne

    If the crew is using a dragon v1, it implies that a catastrophe has struck the iss and destroyed the Soyuz, and the crew needs to escape now.
    Iow, China can not help.

    And in less than 2 Years, it will not matter.

  • Paul451

    Yes, but it depends which version you mean.

    The original Bush-proposed VSE under Sean O’Keefe included COTS, which included the proposed COTS-D (commercial manned spaceflight) as it’s next step. And the plan was meant to avoid any new large scale launchers (although there were factions pushing for a larger launcher.) If that program had continued, there would likely have been COTS manned systems in place by now.

    After O’Keefe left and Mike Griffin took over, he killed off COTS-D and diverted Constellation/VSE to his own Ares launcher, apparently believing that if he could get the President to back the unaffordable program, it would force Congress to increase NASA’s funding. Turns out Congress has seen that trick before.

    So with Griffin’s version of Constellation, there’d have been no Commercial Crew, and the program would still be slipping backward. (Although I suspect the sheer realities of Griffin’s failure would have sunk in by now, regardless of who was President.)

    VSE itself wasn’t a bad concept, had Bush kept NASA disciplined. But he let Griffin run wild, and bam!, business as usual.

  • windbourne

    It is an educated guess.
    1) Bigelow has 2 prototype space stations that are almost 10 years old.
    2) Bigelow has said that he will spend 500 million, and is certainly over 300 million now.
    3) BEAM is going up in less than 4 months for a 2 year mission.
    4) it will take 3 launches using FH to get his station up there.
    5) BA is STILL bleeding money.

    Now, how soon do you think that he will set a date to send up his first BA330?
    Do you think that he is going to wait another 2 years to start, with another year or so to build it before his first customer?
    I am guessing that as soon as the unmanned dragon has flown to space and back (which is later this year), that he will want to start launching his units and have it ready in 1-2 years. That means that he will need to start launch in 2016, say next summer for the first module.

  • Falcon 9 first flew on June 4, 2010, shortly after Obama’s KSC speech, and was followed up a year later by both the heavy and reusability announcements.

  • Michael J. Listner

    And the Heavy won’t fly now until the first quarter of 2016 at least and the economics of re-usability still haven’t been proven out.

  • If you still think the economics of reusability still need to be
    ‘proven out’ then you are deeply delusional and can’t be helped. And even five years from announcement to first flight is pretty good for a triple core heavy launch vehicle, crossfeed or not.

    You have a short memory of these things, or none at all.

  • Michael J. Listner

    Kiss off Thomas.

  • I think I’ll just toss this laptop, I used it once already.

    I can always build another one by tomorrow.

  • Michael J. Listner

    Whatever makes you happy.

  • I’m not a NASA idiot either proposing to toss, participating in the tossing of, or actually tossing the twenty billion dollars of federal expenditures and space hardware into the ocean, so I guess my conscience is clear. At least the Russians don’t do this kind of thing on purpose, so that puts them light years ahead of NASA.

  • Michael J. Listner

    I agree Thomas. You’re not a NASA idiot. You are you’re own special brand of one.