Report: Proton, Soyuz Problems Traced to Engine Manufacturer

Zarya, the first component of the International Space Station, launches flawlessly at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998, from Kazahkstan (Credit: NASA)
Zarya, the first component of the International Space Station, launches flawlessly at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998, from Kazahkstan (Credit: NASA)

A report by Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com says problems that have grounded Russia’s grounded workhorse Proton and Soyuz boosters have a common origin: “egregious quality control problems” at engine manufacturer Voronezh Mechanical Plant (VMZ).

The Kommersant newspaper reported that a recent firing test had revealed technical problems with RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines, which propel the second and third stage of the Proton rocket respectively. The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. The report in the Kommersant echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.

On Jan. 20, 2017, Head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov chaired a meeting of the top managers at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, which manufactures rocket engines, including those used on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket and on the second and third stages of Proton. The high-profile meeting followed a decision to return already manufactured RD-0110 engines from Soyuz rockets back to Voronezh, after such an engine had been suspected as the culprit in the loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship on Dec. 1, 2016, as it ascended to orbit onboard a Soyuz-U rocket.

According to Roskosmos, Ivan Koptev, Director General at VMZ, resigned due to poor quality control at the company and the January 20 meeting resulted in several decisions aimed at improving the production quality at VMZ. According to Kommersant, at the same meeting, Roskosmos also made the decision to recall dozens of Proton engines built at VMZ during the past several years. It also initiated a quality control audit at VMZ conducted by a team of experts from another leading Russian rocket propulsion company — NPO Energomash in Moscow.

Proton has been grounded for more than seven months after it suffered an anomaly during a launch last June. The rocket delivered its payload to orbit, but it reportedly had problems with the second stage.

Zak reports that an additional delay of at least six months is expected before the rocket can return to flight.

A Soyuz booster is set to launch a satellite from the European spaceport in South America on Friday.

Russia has been plagued with poor quality control in its space program. The nation has suffered launch failures in each year going back to 2009.

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  • Counterfeit parts/materials? Yeah, that definitely falls in the quality organization’s lap. SOMEBODY had to pass the material of as the genuine stuff – whether it was ignorance because they didn’t know the difference or fraudulent doesn’t matter: quality should have caught it. Do they even have certs? Are they the correct certs? How did incoming inspection release the materials/parts to the floor? The fact they have to quarantine months or years worth of production indicates the test firings to buy-off the completed engines aren’t robust enough to fail a margin/non-conforming engine.

  • JamesG

    Not just grounded, but double grounded. 😉

  • Douglas Messier

    This is incredible. They’ve had a crisis in their program for a good six years. And all the tings they did don’t seem to have worked.

  • Doug, I’m sure you know this, but there is (intentionally) margin between the drawing requirements and Mother Nature’s requirements. They could have been “just getting by” for years without smoking craters to announce how far they’ve deviated from procedures and disciplined engineering. And, as you point out, the fix isnt to return to how things were done 6 months ago when the problems become critical, but to return to how things were done 6-10 YEARS ago when they started to deviate.

    Throw in 2 realignments of their industry (I’m not talking about the reorg, I’m talking about first break up of the USSR and then the Ukrainian invasion – thus needing to replace/recreate suppliers for political reasons) and you have a BIG problem.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    It should be noted that Zak is spreading Fake News (to a small extent {Update: see Doug’s comment below}) and Doug as well as all other space pubs fall for it. Zak writes: “illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials”. Zak also neglects to link or cite in any other way the original sources, but I tracked them down. The official remarks by Roskosmos PR at RIA on Jan 25 (referred by Kommersant, paraphrased by Zak) state that the replacement solder was MORE expensive than the type of solder specified in the design. It was more expensive because of increased fraction of precious metals. The officials made no link with the reduced thermal stability, and such conclusion was drawn by someone else.

    So, interestingly enough, the improper substitution is caused by the lack of discipline or attention, and not by a lack of money. I’m sure Oberg and his ilk are going to make far-reaching conclusions about the overall mismanagement of Russian space industry and all that jazz.

    Zak didn’t lie to us about Koptev sacked though.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    In addition, solder is not used in turbopumps. It is used in chambers. So the failure of Progress MS-04 is not directly linked to the substitutes, unless they find more of the same in machining stock, forgings, or fasteners.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    The explanation appears that someone didn’t look at all the properties of the replacement solder. It exceeds the old one in most parameters at some of the temperature range. Therefore it was approved after a cursory comparison. And no, it’s not “counterfeit”.

  • Jeff2Space

    Above it says “The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. “.

    What source said it was “solder”? Do you have a link?

  • Saturn13

    Just the translation, probably welding instead of solder. I had read it was the turbo pump failed from debris or vibration.

    Doug, the new look works much better for me. There was some small print in the old. NASA has been taking a big chance relying on Soyuz.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    It is solder. They use a soldering process in assembling chambers, although at that point it’s more like brazing. The difference is, if you cut the chamber and polish the cut, you can see the borders between tubes and solder with a microscope. But welding, for them, is a process whereas the joined material is partially melted. If an (optional!) welding material is added, then unlike soldering, it is a similar material to the one being welded. This, admittedly, may differ from what soldering means in the west.

    And it has nothing to do with the turbopump failure — only an indicator of a possible systemic failure, which in turn prompted turbopump failure.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    https://ria.ru/science/20170125/1486478762.html

    “Детальный анализ выявил применение в производстве припоя, не соответствующего конструкторской документации”
    “Вместо штатного был применен другой, “более дорогостоящий припой с содержанием драгметалла”.

    Seems pretty clear to me, but it appears that Zak didn’t bother to trace the quote to the source and relied on Kommersant, and their rendition was somewhat ambiguous. As a result, the meaning of the statement has changed on the opposite. It is challenging to imagine why a better quality and more expensive replacement caused a failure.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t categorize a mistake as “Fake News.” Fake is stuff you make up knowing it’s fake. A mistake is simply a mistake. You start labeling every error as fake news and the term has no meaning.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    Given the age of the system and the amount of steady improvements made to the system this cannot be considered engineering “creep.” If the rockets were say the age of the F9 (as we have seen with recent failures) thenitcould be considered that those failures occurred through creep and hitting those probabilities of failure. But these rockets are decades old and have experienced issues with quality control, corruption, embezzlement and poor management since the Soviet days

    I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find out this was a management decision to try to increase profit margins by substituting cheaper material or could be just a complete lack of knowledge on the part of quality personnel and they signed off on the wrong documents

  • Jeff2Space

    Thanks for the link!

  • MzUnGu

    Don’t sound like bogus/counterfeit material, sound like a engineering decision was made to change the material to something knowingly to be less $, and the Engineering Change was not filed properly or caught by QA.

  • publiusr

    The Chief Designers are rolling over in their graves. Time for Glushko to turn Walker and start cleaning house.

  • patb2009

    it could be lighter, changing mass properties. It could be more brittle,
    so it cracks when vibrated. It could be it has a different strength/temperature curve, so even though it melts at a higher temp it gets softer at it’s operating temp….