Why the space race is off for Russia

18 May 2015
Posted by Richard Hollingham.

Russia led the world in rocketry in the 1960s - putting the first man and the first Soviet Rocket Stampsatellite into space. But nowadays scientists keep sighing 'not another Russian rocket failure'. The latest proton rocket crash, just last week, pushed the total to 13 in just 6 years. Space boffin Richard Hollingham explains why this is, and why it's a problem for the world's space efforts...

Richard - So, the story that particularly interests me is this Russian rocket. You may have missed this. It was only on the news yesterday. You probably had better things to do. A Russian rocket carrying a satellite burnt up over Siberia. Now, this is interesting because it's another Russian rocket failure. This is a proton rocket. It was carrying a Mexican satellite. Now, rockets fail. It's really difficult to build a rocket and launch it successfully into orbit. But Russian rockets fail an awful lot and have been failing an awful lot, particularly over the last 6 years. There've been 13 failures, 3 partial failures and 20 spacecraft lost, which compares to the European Ariane rocket where they've had no failures, and the Americans who launch an awful lot more and they've just had 3 failures. Now, this matters because we have a lot of European satellites, a lot of worldwide satellites launched on these Russian rockets.

Kat - Oh...

Richard - So, for example, the European Exo-Mars mission which is due to launch in January 2016, that is scheduled to fly on a proton rocket. So, it's not looking good. They have some serious quality control issues and exactly a year to the day where this latest proton failed, another proton had failed.

Kat - Do they know what's going on with them? Is it the same failures?

Max - There are lots of little quality control issues usually in the upper stages. So, a rocket has multiple stages. It has the big bit at the bottom and in fact, the proton is an enormous rocket. It has these strap-on boosters around the bottom. So, it's like a firework with lots of little fireworks stuck around the bottom. So, that launches off and then the first section drops away and you're onto the second stage and the third stage which takes it up to the exact orbit. I think with this one, it looks like there's a problem with either the 2nd stage or the 3rd stage. It went up and just came back down again, like a missile. But it's such a shame. Russia led the world in rocketry. I mean, they were the first to put a man in space. They were first to put a satellite in space. They're essentially using the same technology. There seems to be an issue with transferring that knowledge from the older generation who started this, who built these amazing machines, to a younger generation. We should be worried if we want the latest telecommunications satellites, we should be worried if we want a mission to Mars - that there's not the quality in rockets that there was.

Kat - Let's hope they fix that!

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