Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
In the heat of competition: The Russian investigation into the most recent Proton rocket launch failure has now found that the cause of the turbo pump failure was because of significant management failures.
The investigation into the MexSat-1 failure established that a fast spinning shaft inside a turbine of the RD-0212 engine propelling the third stage can break easily due to excessive vibrations. (The turbine is designed to pump propellant into four thrusters which steer the rocket in flight.) Yet, despite the problem lingering in the engine’s design for decades, the fact that two of these three accidents had happened in the past 15 months was itself is not an accident!
In an interview with the Russian business web site BFM.ru, the head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov disclosed that due to recent easing of requirements for the quality of metal that had gone into the production of the shaft, the turbine became more vulnerable to vibrations. Additional fascinating details on the same issue had surfaced on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine.
As it turned out, dangerously low requirements for the turbine shaft were set in the design documentation during the development of the rocket. However the issue was identified early during testing and the production team self-imposed extra margins for the affected components to remedy the problem. However in 2013, the new management began questioning why so much manufactured parts had been disqualified during production, even when they had met lowest requirements set in the design documentation. By that time, the new generation of workers and mid-level production managers no longer saw a reason to fight for more stringent requirements, which were actually making their own work more difficult. As a result, the hardware which was barely making through the quality control was certified for the installation on the engine, thus giving the old design flaw more chances to surface. [emphasis mine]
The description above reminds me strongly of the circumstances that took place prior to the Challenger failure in 1986: Engineers trying to fix a problem that managers don’t want to see.