Report: Proton, Soyuz Problems Traced to Engine Manufacturer

Zarya, the first component of the International Space Station, launches flawlessly at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998, from Kazahkstan (Credit: NASA)
Zarya, the first component of the International Space Station, launches flawlessly at 1:40 a.m. EST on November 20, 1998, from Kazahkstan (Credit: NASA)

A report by Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com says problems that have grounded Russia’s grounded workhorse Proton and Soyuz boosters have a common origin: “egregious quality control problems” at engine manufacturer Voronezh Mechanical Plant (VMZ).

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.

According to Roskosmos, Ivan Koptev, Director General at VMZ, resigned due to poor quality control at the company and the January 20 meeting resulted in several decisions aimed at improving the production quality at VMZ. According to Kommersant, at the same meeting, Roskosmos also made the decision to recall dozens of Proton engines built at VMZ during the past several years. It also initiated a quality control audit at VMZ conducted by a team of experts from another leading Russian rocket propulsion company — NPO Energomash in Moscow.

Proton has been grounded for more than seven months after it suffered an anomaly during a launch last June. The rocket delivered its payload to orbit, but it reportedly had problems with the second stage.

Zak reports that an additional delay of at least six months is expected before the rocket can return to flight.

A Soyuz booster is set to launch a satellite from the European spaceport in South America on Friday.

Russia has been plagued with poor quality control in its space program. The nation has suffered launch failures in each year going back to 2009.

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