New Roscosmos chief prioritizes ending Proton’s reign

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MOSCOW — In his first interview as head of Russia’s Roscosmos space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin confirmed reports of the venerable Proton rocket’s coming demise, elaborated on plans to restructure and relocate the Khrunichev rocket factory, and suggested Russia is looking to make its segment of the International Space Station more autonomous.

“We must now move onto a new generation of rockets,” Rogozin was quoted as saying in an interview published by the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency Friday. These efforts are intimately tied with the ongoing struggle to raise the Khrunichev rocket enterprise, Russia’s flagship rocket production facility, out of a reported 100 billion rubles of debt ($1.6 billion).

Proton
Russia’s Proton rocket. Credit: Roscosmos

Khrunichev builds both the Proton rocket and the new Angara family of launch vehicles. Aside from the organization’s serious financial issues, Khrunichev has been at the center of Russia’s repeated launch failure controversies. Multiple Proton failures have been linked to quality control failures on the production floor.

“When Khrunichev simultaneously produces both old and new heavy-duty rockets,” Rogozin said, “it will inevitably lead to the financial collapse of the enterprise. Eternal state support is impossible and inefficient, so we need to concentrate on what is most important, and that is the Angara launch vehicle in light, medium, heavy and — in the future — super-heavy variants.”

Rogozin didn’t specifically name when production of the Proton rocket will fold. Various unconfirmed reports in the Russian press have placed that date anywhere from 2021 to 2025. Rogozin said only that “the task is as follows: produce the necessary number of Proton rockets in accordance with already-signed contracts, and then close the project.”

Rogozin did not say how many Proton rockets are on order. The rocket is contracted for commercial launches internationally though U.S.-based International Launch Services, and for the Russian government and military via Roscosmos itself. In 2016, ILS said it had signed its first Angara launch contract with the Korean Aerospace Research Institute for a launch sometime in 2020.

In response to a question from SpaceNews regarding how many Proton launches ILS currently has on its books, company president Kirk Pysher said only that $1 billion in launches are on order and that the company continues to sell flights “while Russian space industry officials grapple with a possible future transition to new vehicles.”

Pysher said that its manifest is “growing with current orders into the 2022-2023 timeframe,” and that the company is gearing up to announce the customer behind a March statement of “multiple launch assignments” for the Proton Medium — a variant announced under Rogozin’s predecessor. ILS has previously claimed 12 orders on its manifest through 2021.

Proton’s retreat from the market also depends on the speed with which Khrunichev can relocate from its historic location outside Moscow to a new production center in Omsk, where the Angara rocket production center is located, Rogozin said in his interview with RIA Novosti. Only then will a firm date be given the closure of the production line.

After wrapping up production of the Proton rocket, parts of the Khrunichev plant’s Moscow territory will likely then be sold off. However, Rogozin said this was a matter of discussion between Khrunichev and the Moscow government.

Asked about reports that Khrunichev’s staff would be slashed from 4,256 employees to 1,691, Rogozin said such a move was purely speculation. He did, however, say the move from Moscow to Omsk — and from Proton to Angara — would entail “the concentration of design and engineering personnel,” and suggest that new positions may appear elsewhere in Roscosmos.

“Concerning administrative staff,” Rogozin added, “as digitalization and other modern methods of management are introduced, the need for a developed bureaucracy will decrease, and this is normal.”

ISS plans

The most curious part of Rogozin’s interview with RIA Novosti concerned Russia’s still-unfinished segment of the International Space Station. Three modules have for years now sat in various stages of completion on Russian production floors, subject to mishaps and delays. Rogozin said the five existing modules have been stuck in a prolonged phase of testing.

“I have set a goal to put the Russian segment of ISS into operation,” Rogozin said, using obfuscated bureaucratic prose. What that means wasn’t immediately clear, but Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian space policy analyst, suggests it means Roscosmos is giving up on adding new modules and must use its segment of the station “as is.” 

Rogozin said “generally, we will give up all experiments developed over the past 10 years, since they have lost all relevance.” The main thrust of experiment work, he said, will be related to efforts to increase the Russian segment’s autonomy and independence from resupply missions launched from Earth — with a view on enabling future deep space operations. 

According to Luzin, these words may indicate a new Russian space policy: “The Russian segment of ISS should be prepared to work separately from ISS.”