Twenty years ago, the Proton K Launch Vehicle became the first Russian rocket to enter the global commercial launch services market.
Proton K commercial operations began on April 9, 1996 with the successful launch of the Astra 1F telecommunications satellite built by Hughes for the European operator SES. Injection to the target orbit was performed by the DM Upper Stage manufactured by RSC Energia.
This event created a strong impulse to further penetration of Russian space technologies into the global market, and became a stellar example of successful cooperation in space among several partners representing different nations.
Proton entrance on the international arena during the difficult times of the 1990s was enabled not only by unique performance characteristics of the launch vehicle, which actually bested some of its Western competitors.
A key factor contributing to that success was the creation of Khrunichev Space Center. It has been created by merging Salyut Design Bureau (designer of the Proton launch vehicle) and Khrunichev Machine-Building Plant (manufacturer of Proton) per Decree of the first President of the Russian Federation dated June 7, 1993. For the first time in the history of the national rocket-space industry Russia got a fully-integrated enterprise responsible for development and manufacturing of spacecrafts, launch vehicles, orbital stations and other space systems, as well as their prelaunch processing, launch, and flight control.
The stablishment of the powerful research and development entity having qualified personnel, state of the art research and test facilities, solid manufacturing base, personal leadership skills and industry-widerespect for its first director, Mr. Anatoly Kiselev – all of the above allowed Khrunichev Space Center to attract reliable partners and win customers trust.
The same year Khrunichev Space Center, RSC Energia and Lockheed Corporation (USA) established a Lockheed-Khrunichev-Energia (LKE) joint venture, which primarily mission was marketing of Proton launch services. On June 7, 1995 LKE has been reorganized into International Launch Services, Inc. (ILS), which just a few years later became one of the world's leading providers of launch services. ILS served all of the leading global satellite operators customers. In May of 2008 Khrunichev Space Center acquired controlling stake in ILS.
Currently, Proton is one of the most sought after heavy-lift launch vehicles used to launch geostationary communications satellites and other space systems. Over the past several years Proton has been flown 97 times caring dedicated, dual, or cluster payloads. Ninety two of these launches have been performed under Launch Service Agreements managed by ILS.
Proton launch vehicle underwent several upgrades and was adapted to launch nearly all types of existing spacecraft. Modernization of the launch vehicle is still ongoing. On April 7, 2001 a modernized Proton M Launch Vehicle equipped with a state-of-the-art digital command and control system was put into service. This vehicle has higher performance and it is more environmentally friendly. Currently
The Proton M Launch Vehicle with the Breeze M Upper Stage is capable of delivering payloads of over six tons to the Geo Transfer Orbit, and in case of the direct injection into geostationary orbits up to 3.7 tons. Proton Launch Vehicle is one of the most reliable vehicles in the world. Since its first flight in 1965 different modifications of this vehicle were flown 410 times.
The Proton Launch Vehicle maintains significant potential for commercial applications and continues to compete successfully on the global launch services market. In the course of 2015, several strategic partnerships have been concluded for Proton launch services.
In September of 2015, Khrunichev Space Center and its subsidiary ILS, and Eutelsat S.A. (France) entered into a three-party multi-launch strategic partnership agreement providing for several launches of Proton launch vehicle throughout the period of 2016 through 2023. In October of 2015 another three party strategic partnership was created with Intelsat of Luxembourg, and this agreement provides for launch of five spacecraft using the Proton launch vehicle over the next seven years.