Russia quietly shelves development of sole SpaceX Falcon 9-competitive rocket

Russian space agency Roscosmos has indefinitely suspended development of the Proton Medium rocket, once expected to help the country compete with the meteoric rise of SpaceX and the growing field of interested entrants in the commercial launch industry.

The (probable) death of a rocket

In an extraordinary feat of double-speak, freshly appointed Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin – likely a primary source of Proton Medium’s paused development – explained that Russia’s national rocket program would likely experience the “financial collapse of [its] enterprise” if it chose to build “both old and new heavy-duty rockets” simultaneously. Rogozin clearly implied that Angara – a Russian rocket that has flown once (successfully) in 2014 and has a commercial demand about as close to near-zero as possible – was the “new” rocket that Roscosmos ought to solely pursue.

Indeed, upon analyzing the public specifications of Angara A5 and Proton Medium, the two rockets have near-identical theoretical performance characteristics, with higher geostationary transfer orbit payload capabilities (5-6 tons) roughly comparable to Falcon 9 in the SpaceX rocket’s drone ship recovery configuration. As a result, it certainly would make very little sense for Russia to fund and build two rockets with nearly indistinguishable utility – Rogozin certainly is correct in that regard.

However, the space agency director is dumbfoundingly off-base in his suggestion that Angara – not Proton Medium or other proposed alternatives – is the way forward to a financially sustainable Roscosmos. As he himself notes, “eternal state support [of launch vehicles] is impossible and inefficient,” seemingly indicating that he believes any viable state-funded rocket must eventually become a serious commercial competitor, a necessity for a launch vehicle if it’s to sustain itself beyond subsidies (i.e. guaranteed government launch contracts).

The “old” versus the “new”

The Proton family of rockets – past and present – may not have the most reliable track record or a consistent launch cadence, but nearly any rocket on Earth can lay claim to a more storied launch career when placed next to Angara. Despite the fact that the Russian government itself has funded the development and production of Angara rockets, just a single orbital mission has been launched, and only with a mass simulator (dead weight) as its payload. Since that one-off 2014 launch debut, not even the Russian government itself has chosen to fly state satellites on Angara, instead siding with other successful vehicles in the country’s fleet, including Proton Breeze M and Soyuz-2.

This is almost without a doubt because Angara A5 is the most expensive rocket Russia currently operates, reportedly 30-40% more expensive than Proton M, estimated in 2017 by the US Government Accountability Office to cost roughly $65 million per launch. At roughly a third more than that, an Angara A5 launch presumably costs ~$90 million in a best-case scenario, given that the manufacturing apparatus required to construct the rocket has been maintained on a manifest of exactly zero launches since 2014. In fact, the vehicle was estimated by Russia itself to cost roughly $95 to $105 million per launch back in 2015.

In an interview with SpaceNews in late 2017, the president of the commercial wing of Russia’s space launch program (known as ILS) frankly stated that “[ILS] needs to target something between $65 [million] and $55 million as the price point [for Proton Medium], and the Angara 5 vehicle will not be able to do that.” In the same interview, the ILS president even went so far as to imply that “Proton Medium was being designed as a purely commercial competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.”

While there is a very slim chance that Proton Medium’s development will be revived after Roscosmos’ internal review, it’s far safer to presume that the vehicle is dead, thus killing Russia’s only tenuous hope of fielding a rocket capable of competing with the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin. While Roscosmos’ goal is to make Angara (an entirely expendable rocket, might I add) more affordable, it anticipates that the rocket would become cost-competitive with Proton no earlier than 2025.

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Russia quietly shelves development of sole SpaceX Falcon 9-competitive rocket
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