Proton-M launch gives Russian space program a boost

Russia has returned its Proton-M rocket to service after a malfunction in the booster stage sent a $265 million communications satellite into the wrong orbit on August 18. 

Fortunately, the recent launch of a Proton-M rocket carrying a military satellite from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome was excuted without any major issues.

The resumption of Proton-M rocket launches should help ease concerns over a string of recent failures that have plagued Russia’s space program. To be sure, three Glonass-M navigation satellites plummeted into the Pacific Ocean last December due to a programming error, while the ISS-bound Progress M-12M freighter disintegrated over Siberia in August. 

The latter incident occurred after the freighter failed to separate from the third stage of its Soyuz-U carrier rocket, forcing Russian officials to publicly consider the possibility of ending its permanent human presence in space. 

“Perhaps in the future, we will not need a constant manned presence in  lower Earth orbit [like the International Space Station],” Roskosmos deputy director Vitaly Davydov said in August.

“We don’t exclude the possibility of returning to the concept of DOS (long-term orbital) stations that we had before stations with constant human presence.”

According to Davydov, classic Soviet-era space station designs, which included the Salyut, served as a base for incoming ships, and were not meant to act as permanent structures. 

Davydov’s comments, while not entirely unexpected, clearly mark the end of an era during which both the United States and Russia placed an emphasis on maintaining manned space flight capabilities.

Indeed, the U.S. recently retired its shuttle fleet, leaving the future of manned space exploration to private companies and prompting NASA to allocate $1.6 billion to hire space taxis capable of ferrying astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station.

It should be noted that NASA has already clinched a deal with the privately owned Space X to fly 12 ISS delivery flights using its robotic Dragon space capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. The first flight is expected to launch by the end of 2011.

In addition, the space agency has also hired Orbital Sciences Corp. to fly 8 ISS cargo missions using its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus 2 rockets. The first Cygnus mission to the space station could take places as early as February 2012.