Newly discovered quality control problems ground Russia’s Proton


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Confirmed: As a result of its investigation into the problems during a June 9, 2016 launch, Roscosmos has now grounded its Proton rocket for at least the next six months due to the discovery of systemic quality control problems throughout the entire Proton construction process.

On January 23, the Kazakh-based division of the Interfax news agency reported the likelihood of an unusually lengthy delay with Proton missions, which could last several months. A day later, the Kommersant newspaper reported that a recent firing test had revealed technical problems with RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines, which propel the second and third stage of the Proton rocket respectively. The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. The report in the Kommersant echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.

On Jan. 20, 2017, Head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov chaired a meeting of the top managers at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, which manufactures rocket engines, including those used on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket and on the second and third stages of Proton. The high-profile meeting followed a decision to return already manufactured RD-0110 engines from Soyuz rockets back to Voronezh, after such an engine had been suspected as the culprit in the loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship on Dec. 1, 2016, as it ascended to orbit onboard a Soyuz-U rocket. [emphasis mine]

The worst part of this story, from an American perspective, is that it might result in a complete grounding of Russia’s entire rocket fleet, since some of these issues involve the Soyuz rocket as well. All manned flights to ISS will stop, which might force us to abandon it for a time.

Read the article. It suggests that Russia’s space industry is now in big big trouble.

Update: The Russians are replacing the entire Soyuz capsule that they had planned to use for the March manned mission to ISS.

“Spaceship No. 734 may be replaced by spacecraft No. 735 over a leak in the descent module [of the 734th space vehicle]. This is not yet known for sure. The spacecraft will be returned for a check,” the source said.

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6 comments

  • LocalFluff

    Oops, big news! At least they take the crewed Soyuz seriously now! A way to investigate launch failures is to ask: What is easy and valuable to steal or substitute? In this case some alloy metals. An accountant could beat the rocket scientists to it.

    In a very poor third world country, renowned for its culture of corruption, I saw on the street market light bulbs for sale, and next to them, broken light bulbs for sale. The sign said they were broken, and they had black spots on them. I asked and they confirmed that they were indeed broken. No attempt made to hide that. They cost a fifth or so of a working light bulb. Baffled, I asked a seasoned colleague why they try to sell broken light bulbs, and who buys them? Well, it turns out it is very rational. People buy broken light bulbs and exchange them for working ones in their work place. So no one suspects that the light bulb has been stolen. Everyone who goes to work, big and small, only think about what they can steal today. And they don’t consider it to be criminal, really, but rather smart business as long as one doesn’t get caught.

    Hope that instead of abandoning the ISS, the stay of the astronauts is prolonged to a whole year or even more.

  • LocalFluff

    Yuri Maltsev, the last one to defect from Soviet to the West before Soviet collapsed, was an economist and member of the Soviet Academy of Science. He noticed that his secretary stole paper clips from the office and wondered what use she could have of them. So he was invited to celebrate Christmas with her and got the explanation: She had made Christmas tree ribbons out of them! (Christmas ornaments not being available for sale in atheist Soviet Union).

  • Noah Peal

    Russian proverb: If you do not steal from your employer, you’re stealing from your family.

  • wodun

    This is very troubling. Commercial crew is coming along but not fast enough.

  • Edward

    Wodun,
    Perhaps this is troubling in the short run, but it may be beneficial in the long run.

    The Russians took a minor failure so seriously, seven months ago, and seem to have found a possible reason for quality control failure. This means that there should be far fewer future Russian launch failures. This is a good thing for future customers as well as for the general exploration and expansion into space.

    If Russia can stop the corruption so that they can finish their projects in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable cost, then they may get back into that sweet spot as an influential space power.

  • pzatchok

    If I had the facilities I would send them a letter and offer to make them a few correct ones using US quality control and materials.

    Even if mine costs them100 times what it would have cost coming from a Russian supplier I would argue mine will work 100%.
    And thats saving them the total cost of the launch vehicle and cargo.

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