A Russian proton rocket launched Saturday in Kazakhstan to deploy a satellite for Mexico’s $1.6 billion space-based communications network crashed in Siberia shortly after liftoff. According to New York Times reporter David M. Herszenhorn, “The failure appeared to have occurred with the rocket’s third stage, which was intended to bring the satellite to an altitude of about 110 miles. At that point, it was supposed to be propelled by engines into geostationary orbit. Instead, there was a catastrophic failure. The stream of telemetry data sent back by the rocket failed about a minute before the satellite was to enter orbit.” See, “Russian Rocket Carrying Mexican Satellite Said to Crash in Siberia,” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/world/europe/russian-rocket-carrying-mexican-satellite-is-said-to-crash-in-siberia.html?_r=0.
While the data is still very preliminary, the signature is quite similar to that which resulted in the May 2014 launch failure. On behalf of the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes (SCT), Mexico’s transport and communications ministry, I was asked to participate as a non-voting member in the Failure Review Oversight Board investigation held by International Launch Services (ILS) last year in Moscow to examine that failure. While the Proton rocket has been the workhorse for the Russian government, launching satellites since the mid-1960s, the nearly 400 launches and their success have been overshadowed in the last three and a half years by six very public launch anomalies/failures.
It is clear that opportunity for process drift and/or escapes can occur in even the most seasoned programs. My thoughts and best wishes go out to my friends both in STC and Khrunichev/ILS. Make no mistake, spaceflight remains hard. Lapses in mission assurance result in the unwanted attention associated with failure to perform.