WASHINGTON, D.C. — The top executive with the U.S. firm that markets Russia’s Proton rocket blasted what he characterized as a recent slew of misinformation surrounding the vehicle, saying it enjoys the full support of the Russian government and that the culmination of a three-year quality control program instituted by its manufacturer is restoring the reliability for which the vehicle has long been known.
"Nothing could be further from the truth,” Kirk Pysher, president of International Launch Services (ILS), said of erroneous press reports concerning a slow-down in orders for the venerable Proton.
Contrary to reports of a bare-bones Proton manifest for 2018, Pysher, citing manufacturer Khrunichev Space Center, said the vehicle has as many as five missions scheduled for the year. These include four Russian government missions, beginning with a communications satellite launch in spring, and one for ILS carrying two commercial satellites.
ILS has 12 missions on its manifest through 2021, Pysher said, including multi-launch deals with the world’s top satellite operators, and is actively engaged with several prospective customers for its vehicles, including the heavy-lift Proton Breeze M, the recently introduced Proton Medium, and the Angara 1.2. Most of the interest is in the Proton Medium, an optimized two-stage version of the standard Proton Breeze M geared towards a market that in recent years has shifted toward lighter-weight geostationary satellites and low-Earth orbiting constellations.
“The right sizing of the Proton Medium is an example of refining a proven vehicle, to remain highly competitive in more segments of a rapidly evolving market,” Pysher continued. The approach is beginning to pay dividends. As an example, Pysher said one major operator currently is soliciting offers for a five-launch contract involving satellites weighing 3.5 to 5.5 metric tons, the sweet-spot of Proton Medium’s target market. Currently ILS has one announced order for the Proton Medium, though Pysher said, “Proton Medium is available for our current manifested customers, if that provides the optimal launch solution for them.”
Meanwhile, Moscow-based Khrunichev is entering the fourth year of a quality control initiative that already is showing results: 12 successes in Proton’s last 12 missions dating back to 2015. Of those missions, eight were commercial launches conducted on behalf of ILS.
The initiative to improve overall Proton quality and reliability was instituted in 2015 following a string of Proton mishaps that eroded confidence in the vehicle, which has been a reliable and versatile workhorse – it has launched everything from communications satellites to International Space Station modules to Mars missions – for more than 50 years.
Mission assurance has become a top priority at both Roscosmos and Khrunichev, as evidenced by a late 2016 decision to halt Proton flights due to a potential soldering issue within a batch of engines that was identified during a standard quality inspection of an engine that had just successfully completed a test firing.
“Since the engine passed the test firing without issue, the decision could have been made to continue to fly, and the vehicle most likely would have performed without issue,” Pysher said. However, Khrunichev and Roscosmos decided to stand-down and replace all potentially affected parts. “This was not an easy decision but it clearly demonstrates the dedication to ensuring mission success,” he said.
Pysher attributed the renewed focus on quality to new management at Khrunichev, beginning with Andrey Kalinovsky, who instituted the quality control and other modernization activities upon coming to the organization from Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aircraft company in 2014. Kalinovsky is now with Roscosmos State Corporation, which oversees Russia’s space industry, where he serves as executive director in charge of quality and reliability.
Kalinovsky’s replacement as Khrunichev director general is Aleksey Varochko, who took the reins of the company last year with the same zeal for quality control.
“Our task at Khrunichev is to ensure that reliable hardware is produced and delivered on time for all planned and future Proton and Angara missions,” Varochko said. “Our commitment to ensuring quality in our product lines is the highest priority. We are now beginning our fourth year into the extensive reform of our business and all phases of the program have been successfully conducted. However, we are certainly not finished with our work. We are dedicated to continual improvement of our processes, our people and our product for now, and well into the future.”
Pysher said the Proton flight hiatus, imposed amidst a string of successful missions, demonstrates that the new system is working. “There hasn’t been another time in history when the Proton was down for a year to investigate quality issues,” Pysher said. “That was a paradigm shift; it’s what the market has been asking for.”
The vehicle returned to flight in June 2017, performing four successful missions, including three Protons launched over a six-week period. Nonetheless, insurance rates for Proton missions remain above the market average, Pysher acknowledged. He said the reliability issues did not happen overnight and restoring the underwriters’ confidence in Proton will not happen overnight either.
“The insurance market is really looking for Proton to demonstrate that it is not a 1-failure-every-10-launches system,” Pysher said. “We are seeing the rates drop but not to the extent we would like them to. Based on discussions with the underwriting market, we expect to see the capacity start to come back to Proton after 15 successful missions and be fully engaged by 20.”
Pysher did not deny that competition was fierce in 2017, with the launch service providers battling over only 11 commercial geostationary satellite launch orders for the year. However, he said, both established and new operators have made it clear that they want ILS in the market, and appreciate having ILS and Proton as one of the mainstay providers to launch their satellites on time, whether it is dedicated, a dual launch or multi-satellite constellation.
“ILS is considered one of the most successful post Cold-War U.S.-Russian partnerships and we have endured the test of time. We have weathered the highs and lows in the marketplace over a 25-year period with 96 commercial launches to date. We have responded to market demand time and time again and have right-sized the Proton launch vehicle and our product offerings accordingly,” Pysher noted.
Geostationary satellite operators clearly are struggling with how best to compete with terrestrial systems, with no consensus as to which design approach is most advantageous in that regard. But there is consensus on the need for launch services that cost far less and are flexible enough to accommodate whatever approach the operators choose, be that large, high-throughput satellites, medium-class satellites featuring electric propulsion, or lighter-weight satellites that can be launched in pairs or in bunches.
“ILS and Khrunichev have strategically developed a family of Proton variants that provide the necessary flexibility at an attractive price and you won’t have to settle for used hardware,” Pysher said. “ILS is listening to where our customers want to go and we are focused on finding ways to reduce the cost of the entire launch service, across the board.” Proton Medium is derived from the Proton M by simply removing the third stage of the heritage vehicle and replacing it with an interstage structure, thus maintaining the flight qualified systems while minimizing the need for new ground infrastructure.
“Other major providers are introducing brand new vehicles beginning in 2020,” Pysher continued. “We have Arianespace’s parent company ArianeGroup moving ahead with Ariane 6 to replace the existing Ariane 5, ULA is introducing the Vulcan to replace Atlas V, Mitsubishi is introducing the H3 to replace H2A, SpaceX announced a new heavy-lifter called the BFR and Blue Origin introduced New Glenn. Come the 2020-2022 timeframe, the only heritage launch vehicle that will be flying is Proton and that is where commercial operators will find stability, proven reliability, and schedule assurance for their critical programs. Proton is not going anywhere and will remain a force to be reckoned with in the commercial market.”