Science and Exploration

ILS Moves Past Proton Failure in 2011

By Elizabeth Howell
April 17, 2012
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ILS Moves Past Proton Failure in 2011
This is the ILS Proton launch of the Intelsat 22 satellite for Intelsat.
International Launch Services (ILS)

Only two weeks after a Proton rocket upper stage failed to deliver the Russian Express-AM4 to its expected orbit in August 2011, Roscosmos – the Russian space agency – cleared the rocket to launch again.
“The time interval to manipulate the gyro platform into position was made unduly short,” read an inter-agency statement concerning the failure, issued August 30.

“This resulted in an off-nominal orientation of the Breeze M (stage) and, as the consequence, in injecting the (satellite) into an off-design orbit.”

But within another week, Proton had launched its next payload. Two weeks later, it launched again and in a month, it launched once more – all flawlessly, according to parent company International Launch Services.

That success, says a senior representative of ILS, is due to an efficient management framework that is able to convey essential information quickly in a crisis, and act upon it.

“We have a flat information structure and decision-making structure that can move information transparently, quickly and in a timely manner to address problems as they arise,” said ILS President Frank McKenna in an exclusive interview with SpaceRef.

“We prevent problems from occurring, anticipate them. That’s largely the role of management. So it takes a lean management team with good, decisive decision-making ability.”

Figures from 2010 in The Space Review show the Proton rocket line has a competitive, but not top-of-the-line, success rate with other launch providers.

Proton had 351 launches with an 89% success rate, compared to Delta’s 96% (across 347 launches), Ariane’s 95% (193 launches) and Atlas’ 88% (347 launches).

Meanwhile, ILS has seen its revenues more than double as the number of satellites it launches annually increased to at least eight to nine this year, from four to five satellites five years ago.

“We’re very sound financially. The business is structured well. It’s focused on what it does best. We don’t go off on tangents and explore things we don’t understand. We really serve this market well,” Mr. McKenna said.

“One of the keys (to success) is to create a financially viable business in commercial launch, which has not been easy to do – as evidenced by a number of players in the market who have had troubles with that.”

Looking ahead, the company is readying to launch Telesat’s Nimiq 6, a direct broadcast satellite fully leased to Bell TV. ILS has launched the entire Nimiq line and considers Telesat a trusted partner, Mr. McKenna said. ILS is also looking ahead to launching Intelsat 23 later this year, following on from the successful Intelsat 22 launch late last month.

The company has made strides to streamline its business lately, including reducing integration timelines and becoming nimble enough to launch six Protons in 90 days in 2011.

Its challenge will be to overcome the legacy of past Proton failures and improve the success rate of the line to maintain its competitive position – in a market with several providers jostling for a spot.

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.