Russian Proton Rocket Explodes after Launch


Just days after Russia’s deputy prime minister suggested the country was walking away from its partnership with the U.S. on space, a Russian rocket carrying one of the country’s most advanced satellites disintegrated after launch.

A Proton-M rocket carrying the Express-AM4R communications satellite failed about nine minutes after lifting off Friday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, according to a report by the state-owned news organization RT. Most of the booster and toxic fuel were believed to have burned up in the atmosphere.

Oleg Ostapenko, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, told the news outlet that officials are still studying the telemetry to better understand what caused the crash, but “preliminary information points to an emergency pressure drop in a steering engine of the third stage of the rocket.”

The booster was about 100 miles above Earth and less than a minute away from delivering its payload — described as Russia’s most advanced and powerful communications satellite designed to provide TV and broadband services — when contact was lost. A similar satellite was lost in 2011 when another Proton-M placed it in the wrong orbit.

The failure occurred three days after Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister who heads up the defense and space industries, indicated that Russia plans to stop supplying the U.S. with its RD-180 rocket engine, which is used to launch military and spy satellites for the Defense Department.

He also tweeted that Russia “doesn’t plan to continue cooperation” with the U.S. on the International Space Station after 2020 — four years earlier than planned — and that it would deactivate sites of the U.S.-managed GPS system in the country.

In a post on his Twitter account on Friday, he alluded to the rocket failure: “The only way to counter accidents is to consistently carry out the decisions taken to reform our rocket and space industry.”

His previous messages were viewed as retaliation against U.S. sanctions levied in response to Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea this year. Rogozin was on a list of Russian officials targeted in March by the White House for economic sanctions.

The RD-180 engine is made by the Russian company NPO Energomash and used by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture, known as United Launch Alliance LLC, as a first-stage engine on its Atlas V rocket as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, has raised objections to American reliance on Russia for access to space in its quest to compete in the military market. It recently sued the Air Force to open more of its launches to competition.

A judge in the case issued a temporary injunction preventing the U.S. government from buying the Russian engine, though later lifted the order after federal agencies certified the payments didn’t violate sanctions against Rogozin.

The Lockheed-Boeing joint venture has blamed SpaceX’s “irresponsible actions” for having “created distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.”

As for Russia’s Proton-M rocket, all launches from Baikonur have been suspended while investigators determine the cause of the failure, according to RT. The Voronezh manufacturing plant, which produces the Briz-M third-stage engine, has launched a separate probe into the incident, the news organization reported.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • andy

    and all this year Nasa and US Airforce keep buy Russian Rockets engine…
    This is how we create jobs, or just may be our defense companies suk.

    • Space Guy

      It’s the policy of lowering overall cost that’s the problem. The Russian main engines (which are not the ones that failed here) are cheap and very reliable.

      Unfortunately, rocket engines are just a drop in the bucket when your country relies on China for most of its electronic components, etc. Too many things are outsourced to other countries to save money.

      • andy

        are cheap and very reliable.

        Reliable? It was the second failure for Russia’s workhorse Proton-M rocket in less than a year.

        So Our Scientics and Engineers are dumb?

        Cheap? Look what happen to our country…our jobs ship to China and now Russia…what happen when you depend on them?

        • java vm

          — “So Our Scientics and Engineers are dumb?”

          Yes. And they aren’t the only ones.

        • Tom Billings

          andy, the RD-180 *is* cheap and reliable. The Proton has an entirely different engine in its third stage that blew up. The RD-180 is powerful, reliable, and, for the first 100 units of the original contract, cheap. We have the license to build more, but we’d spend 3-5 times as much building them as the price LM got from the Russians back in the Clinton administration days, when they were hard up for cash.

          Our engineers are not dumb, but they *are* constrained, by a Congress that insists space funds be spent in politically profitable ways first and foremost. That means engineering must compromise in ways that either cut safety or drive up costs. The choice is almost to drive up costs.

          Our manufacturing is producing more wealth than ever. Automation simply means that it does so with fewer jobs created. For those manufactures that are more costly to automate, union wage scales have ensured that it’s cheaper to make the product overseas.

        • Menzie


  • blight_

    Engines aren’t the only scapegoat in launch failures.

    We have bigger fish to fry: returning to rocket design independence. Next thing you know we’ll outsource tank design to the Russians.

    • reader

      Note below – there are actually TWO “US” launch vehicles using russian first stage engines – Atlas and Antares. Insane

      • blight_

        The horror.

    • Atomic Walrus

      The US can always just fly payloads on the other EELV – the Delta IV. All-American, powered by a Rocketdyne-designed engine. Currently ULA uses it for heavy launches, but the core can be used for the medium launches that are currently flown on Atlas V.

  • hibeam

    We use this engine on our Expendable Launch Vehicle program. I hope it only hauls expendable payloads.

    • Space Guy

      Or that we build very reliable rocket escape towers for our astronauts’ capsules. :-)

    • Rod

      In the fairness of science and engineering, the explosion occurred due to an issue with the third stage engine; according to NASA, that’s the RD-0213 engine. The US Atlas V relies on the RD-180, which is not on the Proton-M rocket.

      I understand your point though. After GM delayed recalling their vehicles, I am very hesitant to consider any of their vehicles. I hope that Pratt and Whitney who collaborated with NPO Energomash in designing the RD-180 engine learned from them so we can stop relying on the Russians.

  • andy

    It was the second failure for Russia’s workhorse Proton-M rocket in less than a year, and we still buy Russian craps??????

    • Crazy

      Do you know how many launch failures the Atlas V (the one the uses the RD-180)has experienced? It’s easy to find and may change you mind about that booster.

    • Cataldo

      Is better a russian crap than nothing.

  • greg

    Take that Putin!

  • Ben

    This just takes me back to ULA’s Michael Gass telling congress, “We went to Russia and they were doing things with their rocket designs that our textbooks said were impossible.”


  • Lance Brown

    Shows we need to stop buying Euro stuff and make our own equipment and weapons.

    • Iridium Halo

      You are obviously unbelievably ignorant of US launch failures. You are also ignorant of the difference between European and Russian technology. Perhaps you should considering growing up and throwing the grade school American superiority in everything away like most people do by the time they become adults.

      • Menzie

        ( ((
        \ =\
        __\_ `-\
        (____))( \——-
        (____)) _

    • blight_

      Depends on how you keep score.

      We lost two shuttles, and have lost more astronauts than “any other space program combined”. The Soviets lost a Soyuz to early decompression and a few other incidents. But because their capsules were smaller their total losses were also smaller.

      Belgium called, and wants their Minimi and MAG back. Rheinmetall called and wants its 120mm gun back. Royal Ordnance wants its 105 just in case you were thinking about it. Bofors wants its AA guns back, along with Carl Gustav.

      Once the United States stops encouraging the free trade of weaponry people the world over will begin to insource. It will spell doom for our weapons industry when the Saudis stop buying F-15’s.

  • Space Guy

    Just to be fair to the Russians (/hides!), the 2020 ISS end date is the original end-of-mission date and NOT “four years earlier than planned”.

    The Obama Administration announced in January that they would push for a 2024 date, and that “NASA would go it alone” if necessary. Although, I’m curious how that would work given that the Russians control core modules. (Not to mention the whole “the US can’t launch astronauts anymore” thing. Go go SpaceX!)


    • Yellow Devil

      ” Although, I’m curious how that would work given that the Russians control core modules.”

      Hope maybe? Hope springs eternal, but reality perpetually crushes.

  • Dfens

    Rockets are a crappy way to get anywhere. Even 70 years into the technology they get at best one ‘9’ of reliability. If airplanes had followed a similar reliability path, they would remain a form of transportation for adventure junkies and the suicidal. These reliability numbers are constant across all nations who use them. For as much as we rely on satellites these days, you’d think someone would come up with a better way of getting to low earth orbit.

    • Dr. Horrible

      I don’t mean this to be flippant or dismissive, but: what else would you propose? We’re only just seeing the beginnings of mass-driver technology in the form of EMALS, but that’s clearly a long way off. Combined lift/rocket based systems don’t yet have the tonnage needed, laser-based systems have middling promise, and most compelling of all: in the vacuum of empty space, not much else really works other than rockets.

      I’d like to see something better as much as anyone, so again, really: what would you suggest?

      • Ziv

        Eventually we are going to build a space elevator, and it will happen sooner if we start serious research now, not in ten years.

    • hibeam

      The uncensored version of your reply is on the home page. Hilarious!!

    • Mitch S.

      Take someone from 50 years ago and they’d be as as disappointed with our airplanes as with our rockets.
      Today’s jetliners look about the same and fly at the same speed. And until recently they were mostly made out of the same materials.
      In 1968 the stuff shown in “2001” seemed plausible but the challenges proved too great for the available technology.

      Yet tech hasn’t stood still. There have been incredible advances in electronics, computers, material science etc.
      I have a feeling these and similar developments will provide a foundation for new innovations that will make the coming 50 years of aerospace far more exciting

      • Tom Billings

        Mitch, the slow advance of aerospace tech in the last 40 years has more to do with funding sources and regulation than anything else. The Congress mandated the FAA regulation be perfect. So, the FAA tries to make regulations that give a zero accident rate. Without grounding the airlines, this is impossible in reality, but results in decade long testing/documentation for any new innovation. Thus the tech creeps forwards.

        The Congress has built the NASA/Congressional/Contractor Complex into a monolith that controlled US spaceflight, and looked to maximize political profit over cost performance for 30 years till 2004. Then the Columbia disaster made people realize that others had to be allowed to innovate, because NASA’s slow march was *not* helping safety. This gave entrepreneurs a 5 year window free of interference. Then Congress started reacting against the imminent loss of voters’ jobs with the end of the risky shuttle program, that was announced back in 2004.

        The pols don’t want to admit that those jobs in low innovation government programs, and their high costs, are the reason for high cost space launch. Thus, congressional fantasy about keeping their voter’s jobs keeps us strapped to a snail’s pace slow march into the settlement of the Solar System.

        • Mitch S.

          Gov’t funding and risk acceptance can push innovation but often spawns expensive products that turn out to be economically unsustainable and ultimately a dead end. Apollo and The Concorde are two examples.

          While many innovations of the first 50yrs of aerospace were gov’t (war) driven, the ones that changed daily lives are the ones that became economically viable. (Jet engines,).
          In our era the CFRP B787 is another example – the airlines buy it because they think in the long term it will save them money.
          But so far big changes like supersonic passenger travel and advanced/lower-cost transport into space are not ready for the market – yet.

          • Tom Billings

            If you measure “yet” in months then you are correct. SpaceX is moving forwards with its Falcon9R landings in Texas, and as soon as the AF range safety people are convinced to let it happen, they will fly a first stage back to the Cape after a launch. The AF there has a 65 years history of knowing that when a flaming rocket is headed away from you, that’s a good thing, ….but when that flaming rocket is headed back towards you, …that’s a *very*bad* thing! So, they’ll take some convincing. Still, SpaceX expects to recover a first stage this year, and relaunch a recovered one next year.

            Once that happens though, 3/4ths of the cost of each Falcon9R launched is recovered. When SpaceX also can land the 2nd stage a few years later, they expect to put 10 tons into LEO for $5-7 million, and at a hefty profit margin! That’s a good step to lowering the costs of transport into Space.

  • @Fumbler4

    Did anyone see the object that collides with the rocket at 2:04? Coming from RH side of screen.

    • @Fumbler4

      My mistake, it is at 0:47. If rocket is approx 100 miles up and camera is on high zoom I don’t see how it could be a bird. I know this is a serious site and all but an object definitely appears to hit the rocket.

    • Thomas Brinkley

      You aren’t the only one who seemed to have noticed that. Still awaiting a forthcoming official response..

      ps. There won’t be one ;)

  • reader

    RD-180 is not the only Russian engine powering US rockets. Orbital Sciences Antares is flying on surplus NK-33’s.

    What does that tell you about the state of domestic propulsion industry ? Until SpaceX did it, the industry had not space qualified a domestic rocket engine in DECADES.

  • citanon

    Rd-180 is a great engine and a really good value. That said, good riddance. It’s high time we god rid of our dependence on our temperamental comrades and start juicing up our space industry again. God knows we have plenty of willing competitors. This little flap is the beat kick in the pants we’ve had in years,

    • Guest

      Pratt & Whitney apparently acquired the rights to produce the RD-180 many years ago, and I’m assuming the reason they never set up a production line was that we could buy the engines from the Russians for a lot less than it would cost to build them domestically. These days, it seems fashionable to denigrate Russian tech (I guess from a couple of decades of Western tanks and aircraft routinely blowing the crap out their Russian counterparts) but the 180 has been a very reliable, high-efficiency engine. All the same, yes, we really need companies SpaceX producing U.S. designed engines again. And I have a suggestion about what Lockheed-Martin can do with all their whining.

  • Rob

    Until rockets are perfected, I guess we don’t have to worry about secret nuclear or biological weapons being deployed into orbit.

  • Werner Vonbron

    What do expect for a bunch of cast-iron and vacuum-tube technology junk, cobbled together by a bunch of heroin-addicted drunks?

    • Iridium Halo

      It was a Russian rocket, not an American one

    • blight_

      I do not know your Vonbron, but the RD-180 is probably good by Von Braun standards.

  • Robert Crawford

    Hmmmmmm… I watched the video…I woulda loved seeing Russia’s rocket go boom. I guess I’ll just take your word for it.

  • Mary Villano

    I bet ole Putin was highly disappointed. We are still better….it’s the money that gives us a problem.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    More power to Elon Musk. I’d like to see what SpaceX can offer, but he’ll never have the K Street muscle that the established players enjoy.

  • bobbymike

    Obviously hit by one of our orbiting laser battle stations.

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