MOSCOW - Russia was forced to abandon Friday's debut launch of its first new space rocket since the Soviet era when the Angara booster cut out during a final countdown watched by President Vladimir Putin via video link from the Kremlin.
Angara is seen as a test of Russia's ability to turn around a once-pioneering space industry struggling to recover from a loss of highly trained specialists and years of budget curbs. It is also part of a move to consolidate the space program on Russian soil, breaking dependence on other ex-Soviet republics.
A senior military commander told Putin an automatic system had aborted the launch, without giving a reason for the delay, but that it had been put back for 24 hours until Saturday.
More than two decades in the making, the new generation rocket is a centerpiece of Putin's plan to reform the once-pioneering space industry and launch satellites from a new space port being built in Russia's far east.
The video link showed the Angara-1.2PP rocket begin to shake in its start position at the northern Plesetsk military launch pad, but a silence descended on the Kremlin conference room as the seconds stretched out and the launch failed to go ahead.
“The automatic system aborted the launch,” Alexander Golovko, commander of Russia's Air and Space Defense Forces told Putin, who ordered a report on the cause of the delay.
The development of the Angara - a new generation of rockets entirely designed and built within post-Soviet Russia's borders - is intended to break a reliance on foreign suppliers and the Baikonur launchpad Russia leases from Kazakhstan.
“This is the first launch vehicle that has been developed and built from scratch in Russia,” Igor Lissov, an expert with trade journal Novosti Kosmonovatiki. “Everything else we have is a modernisation of our Soviet legacy.”
Work on the Angara began two years after the break up of the Soviet Union when Moscow lost the maker of its workhorse Zenit and Dnepr rockets in newly-independent Ukraine and its main launch facility in Kazakhstan.
For some industry insiders, the crisis in Moscow's relations with Kyiv over its annexation of Crimea and a separatist rebellion in the eastern Ukraine proves Russia's need to produce and launch its rockets domestically.
“This [project] decision was made already way back in 1993, with an awareness that our former Soviet allies can ditch us at any moment,” Lissov said.
A potential commercial rival to Arianespace of France and Californian-based SpaceX, the modular launcher is designed to carry military and civilian payloads of up to 25 tons.
Its heavier cousin Angara 5, which space officials said is set for a test launch in late December, is to replace Russia's workhorse Proton rocket, which has suffered an embarrassing litany of costly botched launches.
But both rockets are made by the same builder, the Khrunichev space center, leading to fears that Angara - named after a Siberian river - will suffer similar troubles.
“There is absolutely no guarantee that Angara, which is built by the same industry, by the same company, by the same people will be immune to these problems,” said Anatoly Zak, editor of the industry website Russianspaceweb.
“Twenty years of development is over but we are at the very beginning of the flight testing.”
Unlike the Proton, powered by toxic hydrazine fuel, Angara uses an ecologically cleaner mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene.
Its medium-lift version, Angara-3, is due to complement the Soviet-era Soyuz - currently the only rocket ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station from Baikonur.
Years of strapped budgets when many experts quit the space industry have led to long project delays and ballooning costs from Angara. “It became extremely overpriced,” Zak said.
The Angara rockets will probably become commercially competitive only in another decade, he said, if launched from the new cosmodrome Russia plans at Vostochny, closer to the equator, where less energy is needed to carry payloads into geostationary orbit.