Fun with Figures: The Rise and Fall of the Commercial Proton Booster

Proton on launch pad (Credit: ILS)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Russia recently marked the 25th anniversary of the entry of the Proton rocket into the international commercial marketplace. On April 8, 1996, a Proton-K booster with a DM3 upper stage launched the Astra 1F geosynchronous communications satellite built by U.S.-based Hughes for Luxembourg’s SES from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The flight would mark the first of more than 100 commercial Proton launches marketed and overseen by U.S.-based International Launch Services (ILS). The Proton became a major force in the launch market, orbiting satellites for more than 50 companies representing 25 countries. The rocket earned a substantial amount of hard currency for Russia during a period when the nation’s economy struggled after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Yet, the venerable booster would fade during the late 2010’s amid strong competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a string of embarrassing failures, a changing launch market, and a moving-slower-than-the-glaciers-are-melting effort to replace it with a new booster that burns cleaner propellants.

On this first installment of Fun with Figures, we will track the rise and fall of the Russia’s commercial Proton rocket.

Ready? Poyekhali!

Proton-M rocket launches the Spektr-RG observatory. (Credit: Roscosmos)

A Good Start

Proton-M, which debuted in 2001, is a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching up to 23,000 kg (50,706 lb) to low Earth orbit, 6,920 kg (15,256 lb) to geosynchronous transfer orbit, and 3,250 kg (7,165) to geosynchronous orbit. Proton-M is comparable to such boosters as the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon 9 and Long March 5.

Proton-M’s large payload capacity made the rocket popular with builders of geosynchronous communications satellites. The rocket has also launched modules to the International Space Station (ISS) and will launch the European-Russian ExoMars mission next year.

For this analysis, we will divide the flights between the launches of foreign commercial satellites handled by ILS and domestic Russian missions, which included government and commercial payloads.

PROTON LAUNCHES OF FOREIGN COMMERCIAL SATELLITES, 1996-2000

YearTotal Proton LaunchesForeign Commercial LaunchesForeign Commercial SuccessesForeign Commercial FailuresForeign Commercial Partial Failures
199681100
199797601
199874400
199995500
2000146600
200162200
200295410
200351100
200484400
200574000
200664310
200774310
2008106510
2009107700
2010128800
201195600
2012118701
2013107700
201493300
201584310
201632200
201743000
201820000
201952200
202010000
Totals1891029552
Source: Wikipedia

Of the 189 Proton launches between 1996 to 2020, a total of 102 or 54 percent were foreign commercial flights conducted by ILS.

FOREIGN COMMERCIAL PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020

OutcomeLaunchesPercentage
Successes9593.1
Failures54.9
Partial Failures22
Totals: 102100
Source: Wikipedia

Proton was less successful in its 87 domestic launches, which made up 46 percent of the 189 missions.

DOMESTIC PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020

OutcomeLaunchesPercentage
Successes7788.5
Failures910.3
Partial Failures11.2
Totals:87100
Source: Wikipedia

Proton achieved an overall success rate of 91 percent for all launches during the 25-year period.

PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020

OutcomeLaunchesPercentage
Successes17291
Failures147.4
Partial Failures31.6
Totals:189100
Source: Wikipedia

Since its first launch in 1965, Proton has flown more than 400 times with an 89 percent success rate.

ALL PROTON LAUNCHES, 1965–2020

OutcomeLaunchesPercentage
Successes37889
Failures348
Partial Failures133
Totals:425100
Source: Wikipedia

Year by Year

The year 2000 was the busiest one with 14 launches. Six of the flights were commercial ones handled by ILS.

Proton hit its peak from 2008 through 2015. The booster launched 79 times for an average of just under 10 flights per year. The 45 foreign commercial launches made up 57 percent of the total during those eight years.

There was a sharp drop off in commercial launches toward the end of that 8-year period, with three flights in 2014 and four in 2015. Foreign commercial Proton launches had dipped even lower in previous years, but they had always recovered. This time, they didn’t.

Proton would launch only 15 times from 2016-20, with seven flights carrying foreign payloads. The rocket had no foreign commercial launches in 2018 and 2020.

The Raise of SpaceX

Falcon 9 launches 60 Starlink satellites. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

The fading of Proton reflected strong competition from SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket, which captured an increasing percentage of commercial launches with significantly lower prices.

There was also a global shift away from Proton’s bread and butter, the geosynchronous communications satellite, toward large constellations deployed into low and medium Earth orbits.

PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020

YearSuccessesFailuresPartial FailuresTotal
19966208
19978019
19987007
19997209
2000140014
20016006
20028109
20035005
20048008
20057007
20065106
20076107
200891010
2009100010
2010111012
20118109
201291111
201391010
20147119
20157108
20163003
20174004
20182002
20195005
20201001
Totals172143189
Source: Wikipedia

Proton’s reputation was also damaged by serious quality control problems that affected the entire Russian launch industry. Proton suffered 9 launch failures and one partial failure in the 10 years between 2006 and 2015. The booster was left grounded for as long as a year at a time. Insurance rates for Proton flights soared.

A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites in July 2013. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

The most embarrassing failure came on July 1, 2013, when a Proton-M nose dived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome shortly after liftoff. The booster broke apart and exploded in mid-air before crashing into the ground in an enormous fireball. Officials blamed a sensor that was installed upside down.

The crash contaminated Baikonur with Proton’s toxic nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine propellants, necessitating an extensive cleanup of the affected area.

A Proton takes a nose dive at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

In September 2016, ILS introduced two less powerful variants of the booster using fewer engines known as Proton Medium and Proton Light in an effort to compete with SpaceX. The following March, officials introduced a 5 meter payload shroud to supplement the 4 meter version already in use.

Proton light and medium variants (Credit: ILS)

Although ILS secured several orders for Proton Medium, development of the variant was placed on indefinite hold in September 2018. Customers were rebooked on the more powerful Proton-M rocket.

The Angara Cometh…Eventually

Russian officials said they suspended work on Proton Medium because they were weighing a speedier transition to the long-in-development Angara booster.

Angara is a modular family of rockets capable of launching light, medium and heavy payloads. Additional boosters are attached to the URM-1 first-stage core to increase payload capacity. Angara rockets are powered by RP-1 and liquid oxygen, which are much cleaner than Proton-M’s fuels.

Angara rocket family (Credit: Roscosmos)

Development of Angara has taken almost a quarter century. The Russian government approved the program in 1997, the year after commercial Proton debuted. Angara was a low-priority program that limped along with little funding as the heavy-lift rocket it was designed to replace, Proton-M, made millions launching foreign satellites.

Russia worked with South Korea’s space agency, the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), to develop Angara. The Naro-1 booster featured the URM-1 core stage powered by a lower-thrust variant of Angara’s RD-191 engine known as the RD-151. A Korean-developed upper stage was used during three flight tests.

Naro-1 replica (Credit: Korean Aerospace Research Institute)

The first Naro-1 launch failed in August 2009 due to an anomaly in the second stage. The second launch failed in June 2010; the Joint Failure Review Board did not come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident.

Naro-1’s third launch was the charm when the rocket placed the Science and Technology Satellite 2C into orbit in January 2013. It was the first successful domestic orbital launch for South Korea, and the final flight of the joint Naro-1 program with Russia.

On July 9, 2014, the first Angara launch was conducted from Russia’s northern Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The successful suborbital flight of the Angara 1.2PP came 17 years after the official go-ahead for the program.

Angara-A5 rocket launched on a flight test from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Dec. 14, 2020. (Credit: Roscosmos)

An orbital flight test of the heavy-lift Angara A5, which is designed to replace Proton-M, followed in December 2014. But, it took another six years, until December 2020, before another Angara A5 launch was conducted.

Picking Up the Pace

Angara rockets are expected to fulfill domestic launch needs for a range of payloads. It is not clear whether the rocket will have a significant presence in the international launch market due to its high cost, expendable nature, and strong foreign competition. ILS continues to market the light Angara 1.2 variant and Proton.

Proton launches EchoStar 21 satellite. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Thus far, Angara rockets have been launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. There is no launch complex at Baikonur Cosmodrome capable of handling Angara boosters.

Roscosmos is building an Angara launch pad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. Construction of the spaceport has been plagued by corruption and years of delays that have impeded full use of the facility.

Russian launch schedules are hard to predict, so it’s unclear exactly when Proton will be phased out entirely. Wikipedia shows six Proton launches scheduled for 2021-22.

FUTURE PROTON LAUNCHES

Launch YearPayload(s)PurposeAgency/Company
July 2021NaukaISS moduleRoscosmos
2021IntelsatCommunications satelliteIntelsat
20212 Space DronesSatellite life extensionAstroscale
December 2021Elektro-L No. 4Domestic communications satelliteRoscosmos
August 2022Rosalind Franklin roverMars roverESA/Roscosmos
December 2022Elektro-L No.5Domestic communications satelliteRoscosmos
Source: Wikipedia

The list include two launches of foreign satellites. The Space Drones were developed by Effective Space Solutions of Israel, whose intellectual property was acquired by Tokyo-based Astroscale last year.

There are also the launch of the Nauka module to ISS later this year and the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars next year. The launch of two domestic geosynchronous communications satellites is also on the manifest.

Wikipedia schedule for Angara shows 11 launches through 2029, including three later this year. One of those flights will be the maiden launch of the Angara 1.2. The booster will carry the KOMPSAT-6 Earth observation satellite for the Korean Aerospace Research Institute.

FUTURE ANGARA LAUNCHES

Launch YearLaunch VehiclePayload(s)PurposeAgency/Company
2021Angara A5Luch-5MDomestic communications satelliteRoscosmos
2021Angara A5Ekspress-AMUDomestic communications satelliteRussian Satellite Communications Company
2021Angara 1.2KOMPSAT-6Earth observationKorea Aerospace Research Institute
2022Angara 1.2Gonets-M 17, Gonets-M 18, Gonets-M 19Domestic communicationsGonets SatCom
2022Angara 1.2Gonets-M 20, Gonets-M 21, Gonets-M 22Domestic communicationsGonets SatCom
2023Angara A5MOrelUncrewed test flight of new crew vehicleRoscosmos
2024Angara A5MOrelCrewed test flight of new crew vehicleRoscosmos
2024Angara A5Spektr-UVUltraviolet space telescopeRoscosmos
2028Angara A5Spektr-MMillimeter wavelength space telescopeRoscosmos
2028Angara A5NEM-1Core of Russian Orbital Space StationRoscosmos
2029Angara A5MOrelCrewed lunar flybyRoscosmos

The other 10 missions are all domestic ones. They include three flight test of the new Orel crew vehicle, which is designed to replace the venerable Soyuz transport. Orel will be capable of carrying astronauts to the moon.

Another notable launch will be the NEM-1 module, which will form the core of the Russian Orbital Space Station (ROSS). NEM-1 was originally scheduled to be attached to ISS.