Arianespace, ILS Execs Vouch for Quality of Russian-built Rockets

by

PARIS — The heads of the two principal providers of commercial launch services on Jan. 5 said they are confident that the Russian rockets they use are subject to quality assurance measures that will prevent them from suffering the workmanship defects surrounding several Russian space programs in the past five years.

Arianespace of Evry, France, and International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., both had to contend with Russian government mission failures in 2011 that affected the Soyuz rocket — which Arianespace markets — and the Proton vehicle, which is ILS’s sole product.

The two Soyuz and one Proton failure in 2011 did not involve Arianespace or ILS missions, and in the case of Soyuz did not affect the Starsem launch schedule because Starsem uses different hardware for its Soyuz upper stage. But hardware design has not been the cause of the Proton and Soyuz mishaps. Both vehicle’s designs are considered mature.

The Arianespace consortium has been commercializing Russia’s Soyuz rocket through the French-Russian Starsem company since 1996. Starsem has conducted 24 launches since 1999, all using the Fregat restartable upper stage. All have been successful.

Two more Soyuz-Fregat launches were conducted in late 2011 to inaugurate the vehicle’s operations at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. These launches are performed under direct Arianespace responsibility.

The most recent Starsem launch, on Dec. 28 of six Globalstar mobile communications satellites, came less than a week after the failure of a Soyuz vehicle carrying a Russian government satellite.

In a Jan. 5 press briefing, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said Starsem, and now Arianespace for the launches from French Guiana, has added a layer of component verification to the usual Soyuz assembly and test process.

“Sometimes we have refused a given component because we thought there may have been doubt” about its quality, Le Gall said. “The quality control we have put into place with our Russian partners has sometimes resulted in difficult meetings at Starsem, but we want the same level of quality control as we have with Ariane 5.”

Arianespace’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket has posted 46 consecutive successes since its last failure, in late 2002.

Russia’s heavy-lift Proton rocket has suffered five failures in the past six years. Not all of these have been on vehicles with the same design as the one ILS uses for commercial missions, and the last failure, in August — using the same design as ILS’s — was not an ILS mission, but carried a Russian telecommunications satellite.

ILS President Frank McKenna said his company relies on the same quality control procedures that are followed for Russian government flights. McKenna said the recent avionics-component glitch on the Proton Breeze-M upper stage that forced ILS to scrap a planned late-December launch — it has been rescheduled for late January — is the first problem on that component since 2003.

“There is no difference between [Russia] federal missions and commercial missions” with respect to quality assurance, McKenna said.

What has changed at ILS is that its principal shareholder, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, which is Proton’s prime contractor, has consolidated Proton’s industrial contractors and now has control over most of the vehicle’s production.

Khrunichev has put into place a series of quality-assurance procedures since 2009 that McKenna said has tightened verification of Proton components.

The global space insurance market apparently agrees with ILS as the premiums paid by customers using ILS Proton rockets have not risen substantially in the last five years despite the failures.

“The market knows that Proton’s design is proven,” said one insurance official. “The workmanship issues in Russia are a concern. But the ILS Proton is second only to Ariane 5 in the amount of premium revenue it has generated in recent years, and Russian authorities have demonstrated that they can rebound from failures very quickly.”

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Soyuz Failure Poses no Immediate Threat to Station

Proton Places $300M Russian Telecom Satellite in Bad Orbit