EDITORS’ NOTE: This interview occurred before the July 2 failure of a Proton government launch carrying three Glonass navigation satellites.

Khrunichev is one of Russia’s best known and largest space hardware manufacturers. It is best known as the prime contractor of Russia’s Proton heavy-lift rocket and majority shareholder of International Launch Services, the U.S.-based company that sells commercial Protons. But Khrunichev is also a major producer of space station hardware and has a small satellite production line for telecommunications satellites.

Prior to the July 2 launch failure, the Proton rocket had been rebounding from a series of launch anomalies that already had forced up commercial Proton insurance rates and caused anxiety in a global market that, for now, relies on Proton and Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle for the majority of commercial launch services.

Khrunichev General Director Alexander Seliverstov addressed Proton’s status and Russia’s new Angara rocket with SpaceNews staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

Proton anomalies in the past two to three years have disquieted the market. Is there a common theme to these anomalies? If so, what needs to be done to eliminate them? 

There was a common theme in that we failed to meet our customer requirements and expectations. 

For each of the failures, we identified specific corrective actions which have been implemented for all subsequent missions. In addition to the specific corrective actions, there are also a number of measures we are implementing to improve the overall quality and reliability of the Proton Breeze M vehicle going forward.

First, we initiated a second round of reviewing the entire vehicle and reclassified a number of elements as “critical items.” Under our quality control system, items which are classified as critical are subject to more rigorous oversight during the manufacturing process and more stringent inspection. This effort has been completed.

We also increased the frequency and scope of quality audits at the main Khrunichev factory and all associated branches. Summaries of these audits are being provided to our customers and insurers.

We strengthened our telemetry analysis group whose job is to review postflight telemetry, conduct trending and statistical analysis and provide predictive assessments.

We are also performing a comprehensive study focused on the Breeze M Upper Stage to identify improvements to the design, manufacturing and testing to increase overall reliability.

Lastly, Khrunichev is establishing more comprehensive and frequent retraining and recertification programs that exceed Russian industry standards and has significantly expanded purchasing and installation of new automated equipment and tooling that will ensure consistency and lower the chance of technician error in the production, assembly and test of the Proton launch system.

I am confident that these changes will increase the reliability of the Proton Breeze M vehicle going forward. 

Anomalies also have affected the Rockot small-satellite launcher. How do you see the current status, and prospects, for Rockot?

We have a pretty busy schedule as we plan to conduct two to three launches of Rockot later this year. The international market for light launch vehicles is not as large as the geostationary launch market, but we do see good market prospects for the next four – five years. Eurockot, our joint venture with EADS Astrium, is performing well even with entrance of Vega in the market.

What percent of Khrunichev revenue is derived from commercial International Launch Services (ILS) and Rockot export missions?

As of late the Russian government has increased its spending on space-related programs, and as a result commercial sales through ILS and Eurockot now represent less than 50 percent of Khrunichev Space Center annual revenue. Having a stable government customer enables us to maintain optimum production levels, and attract qualified personnel even in light of considerable demand fluctuations on the commercial marketplace.

What is your impression of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 business model of using few subcontractors, with most everything done in a single factory and the resulting low prices that are advertised?

For Khrunichev, over 70 percent of the components of the Proton vehicle are manufactured at facilities that are part of Khrunichev. However, rather than everything being done in a single factory, our production is spread across several different factories that specialize in particular areas of expertise; for example, engines and propulsion systems, or machined components, among others. We believe that this is an efficient and effective way to operate. 

Does Khrunichev need to take steps to meet the future challenge posed by SpaceX?

For the time being SpaceX appears to represent a more significant challenge to Arianespace rather than to Khrunichev, since Falcon 9 capability overlaps more with that of Ariane 5. Proton remains more competitive in the heavy-lift market segment. At the same time Khrunichev always needs to stay in step with current market trends to remain competitive. We do this by providing reliable, quality launches at a fair price and terms which meet customer needs. Over our 20-year history with ILS in the commercial market, we have continuously upgraded the vehicle to meet evolving customer requirements. We have increased the lift capability of the Proton vehicle from 5.0 metric tons to over 6.15 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) within the last 10 years. This can be further augmented with flexible mission designs for example, the supersynchronous transfer orbit mission design, which provides over 200 kilograms above the typical GTO mission performance.

We are currently implementing an upgrade to the vehicle performance, which will provide an additional 200-kilogram lift capability to GTO, to be initially flown in the 2014 time frame. We are also developing a 5-meter fairing to accommodate taller and larger payloads including large stacked configurations. We are currently offering this capability for flights beginning in 2016.

Europe has decided that its next-generation rocket will carry only one commercial satellite to orbit at a time for GTO launches, as Proton does most of the time. But you have also been moving on Proton Duo. Is a dual-launch capability worth the investment for Khrunichev for GTO missions?

In our case this capability doesn’t require considerable investments as Proton is already a very flexible solution and has the ability to economically launch not only heavy spacecraft on a dedicated basis, but also dual launches without any additional investment. Dual launches have been demonstrated on Proton many times, primarily on Russian Federal missions. Dual launch allows us to provide an economical launch solution for the lighter spacecraft mass range in addition to our dedicated heavy lift offering.

A recent example was the Proton launch in July 2011 which paired the commercial SES-3 mission with the Kazsat-2 spacecraft. This mission also demonstrated another valuable capability of Proton as we were able to use the restartable Breeze M upper stage to place one spacecraft into GTO while taking the other spacecraft all the way to geostationary orbit. This can be of particular advantage to our customers who have spacecraft using electric propulsion, as it can significantly reduce the orbit-raising time from months to days. 

An Angara vehicle was shipped to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia to prepare for a 2014 inaugural flight. What is the status of Angara, and when should we see the first launches of its GTO-capable version?

The Angara development has reached the flight test stage. The first stage has been successfully flight demonstrated on the South Korean KSLV program. The focus is now on finalizing the launch site in Plesetsk.

The Angara 1.2 vehicle was shipped to Plesetsk in late May, which will allow adequate time for extensive testing and interface verification efforts being performed prior to the planned launch in the first half of 2014. The Angara 5 vehicle is expected to launch later in 2014.

What is Angara’s performance from Plesetsk?

The Angara 1.2 will have the capability to launch 3.7 metric tons and the Angara 5 will have the capability to launch 5.4 metric tons to GTO from Plesetsk. It is just a beginning – Angara performance will increase from these estimates.

Should we look at Angara as replacing Proton at Baikonur by 2020?

There is no absolute set date for Angara to replace Proton in the commercial market. Proton commercial launches will continue from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the foreseeable future.

Any decision on offering Angara launch services at the commercial market will be made only following the completion of the Russian Government Flight Testing and Qualification Program.

Khrunichev has a telecommunications satellite manufacturing capability. Is this a priority development for your company?

In comparison with our launch business, satellite manufacturing is a relatively small business, which targets customers looking for a small spacecraft for geosynchronous or low Earth orbit. Still, we do continue to support this capability in a very competitive environment, both in Russia and in the international market.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.