The Russian-made Proton rocket has been flying into space since humans landed on the moon. First launched in 1965, the rocket was initially intended as a booster to fly two-man crews around the moon as the Soviet Union tried to beat NASA into deep space. Some of the earliest missions did indeed launch creatures, including two turtles, to the moon and back.
But now, Russian officials confirm, the Proton missile will finally reach its end. In an interview with a Russian publication, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said production of the Proton booster will stop if production shifts to the new Angara booster. (A translation of this article was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell, a former Air Force analyst of airborne cryptological languages). No new Proton contracts are likely to be signed.
Currently, proton rockets are being built at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center in Moscow, after which they will be transported to a launch site in Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The Angara missile, which made only two test flights in 2014, will be produced at a new factory in Omsk, a city in Siberia.
The decision will bring down the curtain on one of the longest-used and most versatile missiles in world history. When the United States developed the space shuttle in the 1970s and started flying it in the 1980s, the Russian space agency saw the opportunity to commercialize the Proton rocket, and by the late 1990s, the booster became a major moneymaker for Russian space travel. industry. With a capacity of 22.8 tons in low Earth orbit, it became a dominant player in the commercial market for heavier satellites.
It remained that way for much of the 2000s, but as Ars has previously reported, the lack of technical oversight began to manifest itself in an increasing number of failures. In late 2010, a proton plunged into the ocean because too much propellant was accidentally loaded into the upper stage. In 2013, another vehicle performed a fiery dance seconds after launch as flight control sensors were hammered upside down into the rocket’s compartment.
More outages have followed in recent years. These problems, coupled with the meteoric rise of low-cost alternatives like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, have caused the number of Proton launches in any given year to drop from about eight to just one or two.
This shrinking market has opened the door for the Angara rocket, which has the advantage of not using any environmentally hazardous fuel for any of its phases – proton engines used nitrogen tetroxide and asymmetric dimethylhydrazine. This has raised concerns about acid rain and other contaminants below the Proton launch site.
Whether the Angara booster can capture anything close to the Proton’s once highly profitable share of the global launch market remains uncertain.