They came so close this time.
In another four days, the Russians would have gone a full year without losing a spacecraft in a launch mishap. That’s something that hasn’t happened since 2009-10. In another 30 days, they would have gone an entire calendar year without a launch failure.
The loss of the Progress 65 cargo ship during its launch aboard a Soyuz-U rocket today marks the latest in a string of failures stretching back more than seven years. Since May 2009, Russia has suffered 13 launch failures and four partial failures involving its stable of satellite boosters. (See table below)
In another failure in 2011, a Zenit booster delivered Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission safely into orbit. However, the rocket engine incorporated into the spacecraft failed to fire, leaving the probe stranded in Earth orbit instead of heading for the martian moon Phobos.
|RUSSIAN LAUNCH & MISSION FAILURES, 2009 – 2016|
|May 21, 2009||Soyuz-2.1a/ Fregat||Meridian 2||Failure||Second 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, 2010||Proton-M/ Blok-DM-3||Uragan-M #739 Uragan-M #740|
|Failure||Rocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.|
|Feb. 1, 2011||Rockot/Briz-KM||Geo-IK-2 No. 11||Failure||Upper stage malfunction.|
|Aug. 17, 2011||Proton-M/ Briz-M||Ekspress AM4||Failure||Briz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.|
|Aug. 24, 2011||Soyuz-U||Progress M-12||Failure||Third stage failure due to turbo-pump duct blockage.|
|Nov. 8, 2011||Zenit-2SB/ Fregat||Phobos-Grunt|
|Failure||Zenit placed Phobos-Grunt in proper orbit. Spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit after on-board propulsion system failed to fire.|
|Dec. 23, 2011||Soyuz-2.1b/ Fregat||Meridian 5||Failure||Third stage failure.|
|Aug. 6, 2012||Proton-M/ Briz-M||Telkom-3|
|Failure||Briz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.|
|Dec. 8, 2012||Proton-M/ Briz-M||Yamal-402||Partial Failure||Briz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.|
|Jan. 15, 2013||Rockot/Briz-KM||Kosmos 2482 Kosmos 2483 Kosmos 2484||Partial Failure||Upper stage failed near time of spacecraft separation; one satellite destroyed.|
|Feb. 1, 2013||Zenit-3SL||Intelsat 27||Failure||First stage failure.|
|July 2, 2013||Proton-M/DM-03||Uragan-M #748 Uragan-M #749|
|Failure||First stage failure.|
|May 15, 2014||Proton-M/Briz-M||Ekspress AM4R||Failure||Proton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.|
|Aug. 14, 2014||Soyuz-STB/ Fregat||Galileo FOC-1|
|Partial Failure||Satellites placed in wrong orbits due to freezing of hydrazine in Fregat upper stage. Satellites made operational as part of Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation.|
|April 28, 2015||Soyuz-2.1a||Progress 59P||Failure||Third stage failure left Progress in uncontrollable tumble.|
|May 16, 2015||Proton/Briz-M||MexSat-1||Failure||Third stage failure.|
|December 5, 2015||Soyuz-2.1v/ Volga||Kanopus ST|
|Partial Failure||Primary payload Kanopus ST remained attached to upper stage, later burned up in atmosphere. Secondary payload KYuA 1 deployed successfully.|
|December 1, 2016||Soyuz-U||Progress 65||Failure||Third stage anomaly.|
The long string of launch failures has led to repeated shakeups of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with a revolving door of director generals coming and going. Last year, the government decided to transform Roscosmos from a government agency to a state corporation that is consolidating control over the entire Russian space industry.
Initial reports indicate that the Soyuz-U booster’s third stage stopped firing prematurely, causing the cargo ship to fall back into the Earth atmosphere after entering space.
Progress 65 was carrying supplies to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has issued a statement saying the astronauts are safe and that supply levels aboard the station are good. Japan is set to launch the HTV-6 cargo ship to ISS on December 9.
Prior to this incident, the closest thing to a launch failure Russia experienced in 2016 was the early shutdown of second stage of a Proton booster in May. The rocket’s Briz-M third stage fired longer than planned, delivering the Intelsat 31 communications satellite into its proper orbit.
The Proton rocket has been grounded since that anomaly. It is scheduled to return to flight on Dec. 22 with the EchoStar 21 satellite aboard.