Proton Launch Failures More Likely when Russia Footing the Bill

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PARIS — All rocket customers may be created equal, but the Russian government has cause to wonder about that.

While no one has been able to explain the recent record of Russia’s Proton heavy-lift rocket, no one can dispute it: 

Over the past five years, Proton has launched 53 times, with 66 percent of the launches being commercial missions managed by International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va. The remaining 34 percent were Russian Federal missions placing mainly Russian satellites into geostationary or other orbits.

But 80 percent of Proton’s failures — four of the five — were of Russian government missions. And the fifth failure — an underperforming Breeze-M upper stage that placed Gazprom Space Systems’ Yamal 402 telecommunications satellite into a bad orbit — was a mixed-breed contract that bore the stamp of a Russian government launch with an ILS imprimatur.

Yamal 402 was able to climb into its intended operating position and although it lost several years of life it is healthy in orbit and expected to deliver service for more than a decade.

The other four failures since December 2010 resulted in the loss of the satellite payloads. 

Three Glonass positioning, navigation and timing satellites were lost in a December 2010 Proton launch following the overfilling of the rocket’s upper-stage fuel tank.

In August 2011, Russia Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC), Russia’s biggest satellite fleet operator, lost its large Express AM4 satellite following the underperformance of the Breeze-M stage.

In August 2012 it was a Breeze-M failure again that caused the loss of Indonesia’s Telkom 3 telecommunications satellite and RSCC’s Express MD2.

The July 2 failure just seconds after liftoff appears to be related to the rocket’s first stage, with no similarity to the previous four anomalies.

That Russian federal missions appear to be snake-bit while ILS commercial launches — almost all heavily insured, unlike most Russian government launches — continue relatively unscathed has been an open secret in the commercial industry for some time.

Perhaps the most noticeable example of the commercial industry’s view of the matter came following the August 2012 Breeze-M failure. This is, after all, the same upper stage that is used in commercial missions, and the same stage that failed 12 months earlier.

Despite this, the world’s largest commercial operator, Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, agreed to proceed with the launch of the Intelsat 23 satellite just nine weeks after the failure.

The global space insurance industry, which has reported a healthy profit for several years running and is now taking on risk that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, has looked at the same data and concluded, with Intelsat, that whatever Proton’s problems are, they are more likely to appear when the Russian government is paying the launch bill.