Space: Under New Management

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June 10, 2011: On June 3rd, a Russian Proton launcher put a five ton American Telstar -14R communications satellite into orbit. This came about after Russia fired two senior managers of the Russian Space Agency, plus some lesser managers, six months ago. That was in response to the loss of a Proton satellite launcher due to poor management and supervision. Last December 17, Russia lost three GLONASS navigation satellites when the Proton rocket carrying them malfunctioned and caused the satellites to crash into the Pacific. The Proton rocket had been fueled incorrectly, causing imbalance and failure to achieve orbit.

The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers was actually pretty typical. Russia has a long tradition of the "vertical chop", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed, at least in the old days) when there was a screw up in their area of responsibility. This approach has fallen out of favor in the West, where the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired.

Russian satellite launchers are far from perfect. Including the partial failures, the Proton has about a ten percent failure rate. However, the Russian launchers, and Russian launch facilities, are cheaper than those in the West, and nearly as reliable. The higher failure rate of the Proton rocket causes some concern among potential customers. But the Proton is still cheap, even if you have to pay more for insurance. And there is some comfort in knowing that the Russian Space Agency suits put their jobs on the line every time one of those rockets is launched.

One of the most widely used space rockets in history, the Proton has earned nearly $6 billion for the Russian government since the end of the Cold War. So far 364 Protons have been launched, most of them during the Cold War. Back then, about ten a year went up. In the last decade, it's been more like 4-5 a year.

Originally designed as an ICBM in the 1960s, but never used that way, the Proton proved better at launching satellites. Current Protons cost nearly $70 million to build and launch. Overall, 88 percent of Proton launches have been successful, although the success rate has been higher in the past few years. For most of the last decade, it was believed that the Proton would be replaced, by now, with the new, and cheaper, heavyweight rocket, the Angara (which was expected to enter service by 2006). But the Russian government was not able to fund development for most of the last decade. The funding returned last year, and the first Angara launch is expected in two years. The Proton comes in three and four stage versions and can launch up to 20 tons into a 200 kilometer high orbit. The Angara is a similar design, but with more modern components and more flexibility. One version, for example, will be able to lift 75 tons. The most used launcher is the Russian R-7 (Soyuz), which has launched over 1600 times, but cannot life the heavy loads of the Proton or Angara.

 


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