Launch 2020: Russian Missions Improved in Quality, Declined in Numbers

Soyuz-2 rocket lifts off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome with 36 OneWeb satellites. (Credit: Arianespace)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For Russia, 2020 was a mixed year in terms of launch. Once the world’s leader in sending payloads into space, the nation finished a distant third behind the United States and China with only 17 orbital flights. That figure was eight below the 25 launches in 2019, and Russia’s lowest number of the 21st century. The U.S. and China finished with 44 and 39 launch attempts, respectively.

On the bright side, 2020 was the second year in a row in which Russia did not experience a launch failure. That streak came after more a decade during which the Russian launch industry was plagued with multiple fmishaps.

Some of the reasons for the relatively low number of launches last year were beyond Roscosmos’ control. Let’s take a look at Russia’s numbers last year.

RUSSIA
2020 Launch Record: 17-0
2019 Launch Record: 25-0

Launch Vehicles: Angara-A5, Soyuz-2, Soyuz ST-A, Proton
Launch Sites: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan; Guiana Space Centre, French Guiana; Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia; Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia

Russia’s launch year got off to a good start on Feb. 6 when a Soyuz booster orbiting 34 OneWeb’s broadband satellites from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. A second launch with an additional 34 satellites followed from the same spaceport on March 21.

OneWeb declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 27 six days later, putting a temporary halt to the launch campaign. Launches resumed in December with a Soyuz flight from Vostochny Cosmodrome after OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy. The company was purchased by a consortium of the UK government and India’s Bharti Enterprises.

OneWeb satellites being prepared for launch aboard a Soyuz-2.1b booster from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. (Credit: Roscosmos)

In total, three Soyuz rockets launched 104 satellites for OneWeb’s broadband project, bringing the total number in orbit to 110. The initial constellation will consist of 650 satellites.

Soyuz rockets also launched payloads for two foreign governments from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America. On Dec. 2, a Soyuz ST-A rocket launched the Falcon Eye 2 reconnaissance satellite for the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces. On Dec. 29, a Soyuz ST rocket launched the CSO 2 reconnaissance satellite for the French military from Kourou.

Soyuz rockets remained the workhorse of the Russian booster fleet, accounting for 15 of the 17 launches last year. Russian government payloads launched on Soyuz rockets included:

  • 6 Gonets military communications;
  • 1 Meridian M military communications;
  • 1 EKS 4 early warning;
  • 1 Glonass K navigation; and
  • 1 Glonass M navigation.
Proton rocket lifts off on July 31, 2020. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Proton Fades

Proton launched only one time last year, sending a pair of Russian domestic communications satellites — Express 80 and Express 103 — to geosynchronous orbit. It was the lowest annual number of Proton launches in the 55-year history of the booster, which first flew in 1965.

Proton had been a big commercial success after it flew its first international payload in 1996. The rocket was especially popular for launching geosynchronous satellites. The launches earned Russia much needed hard currency.

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 for foreign commercial flights. The number of foreign commercial launches peaked at eight in 2010 and 2012. However, launches gradually declined in the 2010’s, reaching zero in 2018 and 2020.

The reason for the decline is three fold. SpaceX sharply cut into Proton’s market share by offering the Falcon 9 booster at much lower prices. SpaceX, which has pioneered reusable first stages, has come to dominate the commercial launch market.

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

Proton’s most embarrassing failure came in July 2013 when a Proton rocket pitched over shortly after takeoff from Baikonur, caught fire and nose dived into the ground in a massive explosion. Investigators found that a sensor designed to keep Proton on course was installed upside down.

Third, there has been a shift in the launch market away from large geosynchronous communications satellites. OneWeb, SpaceX and other companies are building large satellite constellations in low and medium Earth orbit. There are simply fewer large communications satellites to launch.

The Replacement

Proton is also being gradually phased out in favor of the Angara booster family. Angara is built around a single core that can be supplemented with additional boosters depending upon mission requirements. Angara is capable of launching small, medium and heavy payloads.

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

The transition to Angara has been slow. On Dec. 14, Russia conducted only the second flight test of the heavy-lift Angara A5 rocket from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. Officials said the booster and its Briz-M upper stage performed as expected. The rocket did not carry a payload.

It was the first flight test of the Angara A5 since December 2014 and only the third test of the rocket family. An Angara A1.2PP light-lift booster made a suborbital flight test from Plesetsk in July 2014.

(Front row from left) Expedition 64 crew members Kate Rubins, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov join Expedition 63 crew members (back row from left) Ivan Vagner, Anatoly Ivanishin and Chris Cassidy inside the space station’s Zvezda service module. (Credit: NASA)

RUSSIAN INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION MISSIONS
2020 Record: 4-0
2019 Record: 7-0

Russia launched two crews to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Soyuz transports. In May, the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft carried Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and American astronaut Christopher Cassidy. In October, the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft transported Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and American astronaut Kate Rubins.

RUSSIAN INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION MISSIONS, 2020

DateLaunch VehicleSpacecraftLaunch SiteMission
04/09/20Soyuz-2Soyuz MS-16 (ISS 62)BaikonurISS Crew
04/25/20Soyuz-2Progress-75PBaikonurISS Resupply
07/23/20Soyuz-2Progress-76PBaikonurISS Resupply
10/14/20Soyuz-2Soyuz MS-17 (ISS 63)BaikonurISS Crew

Russia launched two Progress resupply ships last year, a reduction from the three cargo vehicles it sent to the station in 2019.

The two crew missions was a reduction from the four Soyuz vehicles the nation launched in 2019. One of those flights involved an automated test of a new Soyuz variant without cosmonauts aboard.

The main reason Russia flew fewer Soyuz missions last year was the start of SpaceX Crew Dragon flights with astronauts aboard. On May 30, a Falcon 9 rocket sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. It was the first crewed launch from U.S. soil in nearly nine years since the end of the space shuttle program in July 2011. The astronauts splashed down off the coast of Florida on Aug. 2 after nearly 64 days in space.

On Nov. 15, SpaceX launch the first Crew Dragon operational mission. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover were joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi for a six-month stay on the station.

Credit: NASA OIG

The reduction in Soyuz flights created a problem and an opportunity for Roscosmos. The problem is that the government space corporation would no longer be charging NASA about $90 million per seat to fly astronauts to the space station. The money helped to fund Roscosmos’ operations.

Credit: NASA OIG

NASA paid nearly $3 billion to Russia between 2011 and 2018 to maintain access to ISS. The final figure is much higher because NASA purchased additional seats for 2019-21 due to delays with the Commercial Crew Program vehicles being developed by Boeing and SpaceX.

With that money drying up, Roscosmos has been forced to find way to fund its budget. Earlier this year, officials announced two missions to ISS that would be flown by a single cosmonaut and two paying spaceflight participants per flight.

The reason two paying customers are needed is probably because of competition from SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is charging $50 to $55 million per seat aboard Crew Dragon for flights to ISS and free flights in Earth orbit. The competition is likely forcing Roscosmos to lower its prices.

A Soyuz-2 rocket launches a Glonass K navigation satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Oct. 25, 2020. (Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

RUSSIAN LAUNCHES BY SPACEPORT

Russia conducted seven launches apiece from the Baikonur and Plesetsk cosmodromes. Russia operates out of Baikonur, which was the main Soviet spaceport, under a long-term lease with Kazakhstan. Plesetsk is a military base in northern Russia used for polar orbit launches.

RUSSIAN LAUNCHES BY SPACEPORT, 2020

SpaceportLocationSuccessesFailuresTotal
BaikonurKazakhstan707
PlesetskRussia707
KourouFrench Guiana202
VostochnyRussia101
Total17017

A pair of Soyuz rockets were launched from the European spaceport in French Guiana. The launches are conducted in partnership with Arianespace.

The new Vostochny Cosmodrome, which is designed to reduce Russia dependence on Baikonur, saw only a single launch last year. A Soyuz-2.1b booster with a Fregat upper stage orbited 36 broadband satellites into orbit for OneWeb in December.

Tomorrow: A Disappointing Year for Europe