Designers and Technicians Blamed for “Proton” Rocket Failure

August 7, 2013

On July 2nd, a Russian satellite launch failed, highlighting continuing problems with Russia’s space program. The technological issues and heavy cutbacks in funding are significant problems for not only Russia. The Russian Soyuz plays a critical role in delivering staff and supplies to the International Space Station. – Ed.

The Russian government commission investigating the cause of the failed launch of the “Proton-M” rocket on July 2nd had its meeting yesterday. The rocket was carrying three “Glonass-M” satellites. Speaking at the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that it is necessary not only to identify those officials who are directly responsible for the incident, but also to “come up with conclusions and findings on the responsibility of each of the officials in (the rocket and space industry) companies, and the space agency.” Having sharply criticized the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin suggested that aviation and space industries should be combined.

Just recently, the vice-premier Rogozin proposed to reform the space industry, but now he seems completely disillusioned with the ability of the current leadership of Roscosmos not only to manage the industry but even to understand the challenges facing it. This is how he expressed his thoughts: “First of all, I see poor management. Second, excess capacity. Third, rather vague understanding of the purposes of space-related activities.”

According to him, it’s pointless to reform Roscosmos, because they just do not want it: “The functions and responsibilities of the customer, manufacturer and operator of space systems still haven’t been delineated,” said the Deputy Prime Minister. “The industry is oversized and poorly managed.

“The wages are low, and they remain that way, when we have such a huge number of enterprises doing the same thing, in fact working in parallel to achieve the same objectives. And they complain that the resources of our satellites is more limited compared to the foreign ones. At the same time there is no uniform science and technology policy. Almost all entities essentially operate like some kind of subsistence economy.”

Vladimir Popovkin , the head of Roscosmos and the former commander of the Russian Space Forces, expressed doubts as to whether all the blame should be laid on the staff of the Khrunichev Center who allegedly have installed angular velocity sensors backwards, which supposedly was the cause of the accident. Just because the workers flatly refused to admit their mistake. And the conclusions of the inspection did not prove anything. It was only stated that an error could have occurred. But there is no definitive evidence of such error. It seems there is nothing left of those sensors, except for some imprints on aluminum mounting plates. But as a result of a terrible impact there are many different imprints. And, if they could be examined, it might well be that the sensors were installed correctly, since those imprints were never examined by the commission. But the manufacturer seems to have noticed it right away.

So now Popovkin is trying to blame not only the manufacturer, but also the designers and technicians. According to him, the designers are the only people who knew that it was “physically impossible” to check if the sensors were installed correctly, and did not envisage a possibility of their improper installation. “And the second reason, in my opinion is the technology,” said Popovkin. “We have to really bend over backwards to find where these devices are installed (on a rocket. — NG).”

Popovkin’s predecessor, Anatoly Perminov, was dismissed after a similar accident involving a Proton loaded with three Glonass-M satellites. Popovkin got away with only a reprimand from the prime minister Dmitry Medvedev on August 2. News agencies quoted the text of the document: “The head of the Federal Space Agency Vladimir Popovkin shall be reprimanded for improper performance of his official duties.”

But it looks like the head of the government was told to hold his horses (and that can only be done by one person), and he backtracked, saying that the reprimand was not related to the official business. There, presumably, everything is tip-top. It turned out that Popovkin is guilty of violations of corporate ethics, that is he wrote too many letters to the government asking to increase the Roscosmos budget.

“With reductions in funding of acquisition of rocket and space technology and equipment it will not be possible to produce and launch the required number of the GLONASS system satellites, which will result in the degradation of the orbit group: already in 2015 the grouping could be reduced to 22 spacecraft (from the present 24),” warns Popovkin.

In 2012, the Ministry of Defense refused to commission the space navigation system due to the failure of one of the satellites. However, representatives of Roscosmos stated that the delay was due to the fact that some documents had not been prepared on time. That was more than seven months ago, but the documents are still not ready. And all the while the GLONASS system has been serviced at the expense of Roscosmos. It is quite unlikely that the system will be up and running in a normal mode by the end of the year.

By now all the main creators of GLONASS have been relieved of their duties. The first one to go was Dr. Yuri Urlichich, the chief designer of GLONASS and the General Director of the JSC “Russian Space Systems” (RSS), who fell victim to intrigues and false accusations. For the last five years investigators and auditors have been unsuccessfully trying to substantiate charges of embezzlement of at least some amounts of money.

Now the RSS launched a competition for the vacant positions of all the deputies of the general designer and department heads. However, there is no such announcement to that effect on the corporate website. It was published only in the “Military-Industrial Courier” newspaper.

All the dismissed specialists have been engaged in the creation of GLONASS from the very beginning. Who will take over to continue their work, to understand their ideas? They will be replaced with other people, whose objectives will be quite different, that is to create opportunities for “cost saving”. You can kiss the idea of further GLONASS development good-bye.

Dmitry Rogozin’s proposal to combine aircraft and space industries sounds like a cry of despair. But it is doubtful whether this attempt to change the situation will work. Attempts to rid Roscosmos of its current boss is unlikely to succeed. So all we can do is to observe the crisis of the Russian space industry getting deeper and deeper.