Is the Russian space program losing its edge?
This morning, a Russian Proton-M rocket malfunctioned about nine minutes after launch and crashed somewhere in the Zabaikalsk area of Siberia, near the Mongolian border. The rocket was carrying MexSat-1 (nicknamed "Centenario"), a Boeing-built Mexican communication satellite, which was slated to carry out a 15-year-long mission in geosynchronous orbit.
"The Proton Breeze M rocket lifted off at 11:47 local time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying the Centenario satellite," said a spokesperson for International Launch Services (ILS), the joint US-Russian venture responsible for the launch. "Preliminary flight information indicates that the anomaly occurred during the operation of the third stage, approximately 490 seconds after liftoff."
Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, said the malfunction occurred when this third stage booster failed to deploy, causing both the rocket and the satellite to plummet back to Earth from an altitude of about 97 miles—well above the 62-mile-high Kármán line that separates Earth atmosphere from outer space.
This is the latest incident in an ongoing run of bad luck for Roscosmos. Just a few weeks ago, on April 28, the agency lost control of Progress 59, a capsule that was carrying a 6,000-pound payload of food and fuel to the International Space Station. The agency was not able to recover the spacecraft before it burned up on reentry, delaying the planned shift change on the ISS.
Roscosmos also lost control of a Proton-M rocket exactly one year ago, which resulted in a fiery crash that destroyed both the boosters and the onboard communications satellite. Despite the Proton-M's long history of successes, this recent string of costly failures has sparked skepticism about the rocket's reliability, as well as Roscosmos's reputation more broadly.
"It seems that the Russian space industry is disintegrating with cosmic speed," said space policy expert Yuri Karash, according to USA Today. In Karash's view, budget cuts and a lack of direction have left Roscosmos with "far from the best specialists [who] have no interest in cobbling together cosmic stools such as rockets developed a half-century ago."
That's a harsh assessment, and it would be interesting to know how Roscosmos's leadership would respond to it. The agency has admittedly been acting a little off-kilter recently, announcing nonexistent agreements with NASA and speculating on abandoning the ISS to build its own space station, so it's difficult to get a handle on its long-term goals or its administrative stability.
What's more, while rocket malfunctions are to be expected—and are certainly not unique to Roscosmos—the recent spotty record of Russian launches is a worrisome trend for space enthusiasts everywhere.
After all, Russia has played a central role in spaceflight history, and it would be a huge loss for the entire space community if it is rendered unable to contribute to its future.