Crash and burn: why are so many Russian rockets failing?

Systemic issues with Russia’s space program have left sizable challenges for the security and safety of its rockets.

Proton-M carrier to be launched from Baikonur cosmodrome
Dr. Ian O'Neill documents the recent spate of rocket failures that have left Russia's space program in a precarious place [EPA]

On July 2, Russia launched an unmanned Proton-M rocket with a $200m payload of three navigation satellites. 17 seconds after lift-off the rocket was a burning, toxic debris field. Although we know rocket science can be a risky business, watching a 53 metre-long rocket booster tumble out of control and slam into the Kazakh Steppes is a reminder that we are a burgeoning space faring civilization ruled by physics and stymied by human error. 

Premature launch

The Proton-M launch should have been a routine unmanned mission to deliver three GLONASS (Global Navigational Satellite System) satellites to Russia’s growing navigation system – the nation’s answer to the US-managed Global Positioning System (GPS). Orbiting 20,000 kilometres above Earth, GLONASS – which saw its first satellite launch in 1982, but is currently undergoing a major upgrade – is a source of national pride. But on July 2, at 6:38 a.m. Moscow Time, that pride turned into abject horror.

According to media sources, the launch occurred prematurely from the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a launch complex leased by the Russian government that carries out all of the nation’s manned and unmanned space launches. Soon after liftoff, live television coverage showed a rocket in serious trouble. Rather than showing a healthy vertical booster powering through the atmosphere, viewers noticed something had gone awry; the Proton-M was veering off course.

In what appeared to be a valiant effort to correct its trajectory, the booster powered in the other direction, but its fate was sealed; the rocket was going anywhere but up. It started to barrel roll and began to steer itself horizontally. Then, due to incredible dynamic stresses, the Proton-M disintegrated and burst into flames. The burning wreck slammed into the ground just 2.5 kilometres from the launch pad, creating a dramatic fireball as 600 tons of highly toxic unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel burned.

Could the crash of the Proton-M on July 2 be another symptom of neglect in the Russian space program?

Although there were no initial reports of injury or structural damage, an alert was sent to the city of Baikonur, 65 kilometres away from the crash site. The noxious fumes from the burning crash site would have been highly poisonous to anyone breathing it in. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and prevented any of the fumes from reaching Baikonur.

So what happened? According to an anonymous rocket industry source working with the commission investigating the accident, the rocket launched prematurely by a mere half-second, preventing the booster from reaching the necessary power to launch.

“The analysis of the telemetry data has shown that the rocket’s lif-toff occurred nearly half a second ahead of time. Hence, the engines had not reached the necessary thrust capacity by this time,” the source told Interfax.

The source went on to describe how, in this situation, the Proton-M is designed to start “an emergency procedure to direct the rocket away from the launch pad.”

This “emergency procedure” is in stark contrast to rocket launches carried out by their Western counterparts. NASA, for example, equips all rockets (even ones carrying astronauts) with self-destruct explosives – launch range safety officers then terminate the launch should the hardware veer off course, keeping any damage confined to the launch complex and not any nearby populated areas. As was graphically displayed on July 2, the launch of a Russian Proton-M rocket is only “terminated” when it hits the ground.

Growing list of failures

This launch accident is only the latest in a string of incidents that have blighted Russia and its space agency Roscosmos. Of the ten Proton-M launches in 2012, one has completely failed and one was only a partial success. Since 2010, there have been five major failures. Other GLONASS satellites have been lost in the past; in December 2010, another Proton-M booster failure scrapped another three navigation satellites.

NASA to launch weather rocket

Launch failures, hardware failures and programming mishaps aren’t restricted to the Proton-M design either. In August 2011, the usually reliable Russian Progress vehicle crashed after launch when it was on its way to re-supply the space station. Then, the following December saw the loss of a Soyuz-2 rocket after its upper stage failed to ignite correctly causing its military satellite payload to drop out of orbit.

In November 2011, a programming error, poor testing, and poor quality control was to blame for the loss of Russia’s audacious Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars’ largest moon. The spacecraft was unable to leave Earth orbit after launch, causing it to re-enter the atmosphere on January 15, 2012. (Interestingly, Russia has had a hard time getting to Mars in the past – in 1996, the Mars 96 mission came to a premature end after the failure of an upper stage burn. A Proton booster was also used for that flight.)

In light of this most recent failed launch, future Proton-M launches have been suspended, a move that will delay scheduled government and commercial launches using the booster design. As reported by Space Policy Online, criminal proceedings have been opened to root out those responsible. Sadly, it seems that Russia’s recent space launch woes are symptomatic of a bigger problem.

‘There are problems’

In the wake of the 2011 Soyuz booster failure, Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin was blunt as to the reasons behind the spate of rocket failures.

“There are problems. There is aging of many resources. We need to optimize everything. We need to modernize,” said Popovkin during a press conference in Moscow. “It’s also aging of human resources. Given the troubles we had in the ‘90s, quite a lot of people left and nobody came to replace them.”

NASA plans to intercept asteroid

Could the crash of the Proton-M on July 2 be another symptom of neglect in the Russian space program? Speaking with, Russian spaceflight expert and journalist Vladimir Gubarev also blamed the lack of modernization for the growing number of failures in space, but levelled special criticism on sub-standard hardware, botched science reform and a lack of specialists in the space industry.

“The most recent explosion is very symbolic, because the technological level has been declining, and our parliamentarians and ministries are involved in nonsensical activities, such as the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences,” said Gubarev.

“The infamous launch of Mars Grunt, an accident on board the Proton rocket, and then suddenly it turns out that it all happened because of a failure in the electronic computing unit, which was delivered from China, and the unit was not designed to operate in space. What kind of reform in science can we talk about?

ExoMars concern?

Earlier this year, NASA backed out of its involvement in the European Space Agency (ESA) led ExoMars mission scheduled to launch in 2016. This multi-component mission was left with no rockets to launch it. Russia was quick to step in, signing a deal with ESA to provide launch services and some instrumentation. The problem with this plan? A pair of Proton-M boosters will be the rockets to send ExoMars to the Red Planet, a factor that will undoubtedly make European space scientists twitchy.

At the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, France, where Russia’s ExoMars partnership was announced in June, Discovery News spoke with Vincenzo Giorgio, ExoMars manager for ESA’s prime contractor Thales Alenia Space, about the prospect of launching the mission on Russian rockets consideringRussia’s bad luck while launching Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt.

“That’s why they’re flying with us,” said Giorgio. “They’ll become lucky.”

For the sake of Russia’s space industry, let’s hope it’s more than just luck that will see ExoMars arrive on Mars in one piece. 

Ian O’Neill is Space Science Producer for Discovery News. He is also the founder and editor of space blog Astroengine.

Follow him on Twitter: @astroengine