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.

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

20 Comments on "Russian Proton Rocket Explodes after Launch"

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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

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

  5. Take that Putin!

  6. 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."


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

  8. 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!)


  9. 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.

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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,

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

  14. Werner Vonbron | May 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Reply

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

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

  16. Mary Villano | May 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Reply

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

  17. Brian B. Mulholland | May 19, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Reply

    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.

  18. Obviously hit by one of our orbiting laser battle stations.

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