Russia’s Fregat: What Mission Assurance?

“Quit fiddling with it. The helium line is fine where it is.” Fregat image from the ESA image library.

Placing a satellite in the wrong orbit.  It’s what the delightful world of mission assurance is supposed to prevent.  If you talk to any space operator, mission assurance is the sexiest profession in the space realm…JK–not really!  If anything, the typical space operator falls asleep at the first fishbone chart presented in the omnipresent and snore-inducing PowerPoint presentation tool. And heaven help the poor fool who got caught in the hallway to be brought in to listen to some enthusiastic engineer wax poetic about particular thermal characteristics of a passive radiator in a scatter chart.  The victim might suffer from whiplash at the sudden onset of near universal narcolepsy brought on by such deadly characterization tools…and boom goes the satellite.

So maybe that’s what happened when NPO Lavochkin presented their processes and plans to the Galileo satellite team for the Fregat upper stage.  How else could something like locating a freezing cold helium line next to the fuel line have not been noticed?  At least that’s what an independent review panel figured out AFTER the orbital disaster and concluded in a report on 8 October, 2014.

Although, typically such technical information, as what Lavochkin may have briefed the Galileo team, tends to be given by a particular personality to the same kind of particular personality.  And the receiving personality tends to give the data a very critical eye before nodding the go ahead to the next slide.  But this IEEE Spectrum post indicates that the plans for the Fregat upper stage that ultimately placed the Galileo satellite in the wrong orbit had “ambiguities.”  This means the “blueprints” of the Fregat might have not presented the whole picture highlighting the potential problem of the Fregat to the Galileo team.  If there was any following up of the ambiguities, it apparently wasn’t forceful enough to get the Russian company to double-check the design.

For those who don’t know, mission assurance is the process that usually watches and sometimes informs other space project processes.  Usually it’s associated with managing risks (some try to associate it with zero risk) to a project.  But it’s really a bit more complicated than that, since engineers obviously designed it.  It’s how companies like the Aerospace Corporation make their bread and butter.  They usually provide independent reviews and assessments of the engineering, building and operating processes other contractors use for space component production.  It’s a cumbersome and burdensome process.

But the US government and a few others believe mission assurance to be a valuable service, and therefore use it.  Does it work?  Does it keep the elephants away?*  If you look at the record of the United Launch Alliance in the last few years, which hasn’t lost a launch for a while, the answer could be a “yes.”  But maybe they’re lucky.

Which brings us back to the Russians.  Maybe they’ve been lucky all this time with Fregat.  Unfortunately for the Galileo’s mission assurance team (they do have one, right?), that luck ran out on 22 August 2014.  Anyone out there up for a European tour?

*This is a joke based on a humorous Sufi Nasrudin teaching story.  It goes like this:  A man who worked in an office suddenly started to slam his desk drawers and yell at the top of his lungs in the morning.  He did this for a few days before a friend approached him and asked, “Why are you making all this noise every morning?”  The man replied,”It’s to keep the elephants away.”  To which his friend then stated, “But there are no elephants here.”  The noisemaker nodded with satisfaction and said, “You see!! It works!”

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