The Proton rocket, Russia’s primary commercial launch vehicle, faces a life-and-death struggle to remain a competitive player on the international launch market, industry sources say. The veteran Soviet space rocket has spent nearly a quarter of a century as the vehicle of choice for operators of communications satellites all over the world. But it has fallen to near-irrelevance in just a matter of two years. After reaching a peak of 12 launches in 2010, the Proton is now staring at a real possibility of flying just a couple of missions this year and not delivering a single commercial payload.
What could cause Proton’s dramatic fall from grace? It looks like a convergence of multiple factors has created a perfect storm for the Russian workhorse rocket.
The 700-ton Proton traces its roots to the Moon Race between the United States and the USSR, and the design became the locomotive of the Soviet space program. Then came the 1990s, when the the Russian rocket industry faced the chaos of the post-Soviet economic transition, combined with falling oil prices and the shrinking military budget. These factors left the rocket at the brink of collapse. However, the leadership at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow (where Proton is manufactured) worked tirelessly with the newly created Russian space agency to establish a leading position for Russian rockets in the hyper-competitive western launch market. Along with numerous other joint space projects with the West, the Proton became a major moneymaker for the Russian space industry by the end of the 1990s.