Russia’s leading space company, Roscosmos, said it was building four more Proton rockets before halting production of the venerable booster.
In a press release, Roscosmos said the four rockets were on an assembly line at the Khrunichev National Center for Space Research and Design plant in Moscow’s Fili district. Once completed, these four rockets will be added to its current inventory of 10 flight-ready Proton-M rockets. (The press release was translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell.)
Russia said it plans to launch those 14 remaining Proton rockets over the next four or five years. During that time, Russia plans to transfer payloads, such as military communications satellites, that would have been launched on the Proton booster to the new Angara-A5 rocket.
The last flight of the Proton rocket will end a long era. The first Proton rocket was launched in 1965, almost 57 years ago, in the middle of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Variants of the Proton rocket have been launched 426 times, with a failure rate of around 10%.
Notably, the Proton rocket launched elements of four separate space stations: Salyut 6, Salyut 7, Mir and the International Space Station. But the rocket, with a lifting capacity of 23.7 metric tons into low Earth orbit, was facing increasing competition for commercial launches. As a result, while the Proton booster was once launched 10 or 12 times a year, the flight rate has fallen to three missions or less per year since 2015.
International demand has slowed, in part, due to a series of high-profile failures. In late 2010, a Proton rocket plunged into the ocean because too much propellant had been mistakenly loaded into its upper stage. In 2013, another vehicle performed a fiery dance seconds after liftoff because flight control sensors were rammed into the rocket compartment upside down. (Spectacular disaster is worth watching.)
These technical issues came just as competitors, including SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket, were underpricing the Proton in terms of cost and offering better reliability. This reduced costs for satellite operators through lower insurance premiums.
With the Angara-A5 rocket, Russia hopes to regain part of this international satellite launch market. However, that hinges on Russia’s ability to cut production costs for the Angara-A5 rocket from $100 million per launch to $57 million by 2024, the country’s stated goal.
However, even this lofty goal for the fully expendable rocket is unlikely to help Russia too much in the competition for commercial launches. SpaceX has already demonstrated that it can re-fly its Falcon 9 booster for less than $30 million.
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