Russian Progress spacecraft suffers another failure

Posted on 6 Dec 2016 by Michael Cruickshank

An unmanned Russian Progress resupply spacecraft suffered a failure minutes after launch last week.

Russian spacecraft have suffered a number of failures in recent years. Image courtesy of Nasa Johnson
Russian spacecraft have suffered a number of failures in recent years. Image courtesy of Nasa Johnson

The spacecraft encountered a problem during its third stage burn causing ground controllers to lose telemetry. Russian space agency Roscosmos later confirmed that the Progress spacecraft had failed to reach orbit.

“According to preliminary information, the contingency took place at an altitude of about 190 km over a remote and unpopulated mountainous area of the Republic of Tyva,” Roscosmos explained in a statement. “Most of the cargo spacecraft fragments burned in the dense atmosphere.”

The spacecraft itself had been carrying 2.5 tons of cargo for the International Space Station (ISS), including food, water, fuel and equipment. Nonetheless, the loss of this craft should not impact operations on board the ISS according to Roscosmos. As well, a number of additional resupply craft are slated for launch in the near future, meaning that there will be no shortfall of supplies.

In the coming days a Japanese HTV resupply craft will be launched to the ISS, followed by another craft by SpaceX, which itself is returning to flight from a recent explosive vehicle failure.

Russian quality control

This is the second failure of a Progress spacecraft in the past 18 months and the 15th failure of a Russian rocket in the past six years. These failure rates, which now exceed those of competitors in the US, bring into question the hard-won reputation for reliability which Russian rockets have previously enjoyed.

While the exact reasons for this decline in reliability are not well-known, they could be linked to a number of factors related to Russia’s declining economy. Russia’s space program has seen its funding periodically slashed in recent years, putting pressure of contractors to do more with less. Inevitably this could lead to a decline in quality.

In addition, Russia’s skilled workforce is in decline, with experienced engineers retiring and fewer talented newcomers to taking their places. The poor state of Russia’s space industry is particularly concerning to the ISS, given that all countries now rely solely on their rockets to ferry astronauts into space.