An army newspaper marking the 30th anniversary of a rocket explosion says the blast killed 165 people, including a leading general, making it the worst known space-related accident in the Soviet Union.
The Red Star article on Wednesday said a prototype rocket's second stage was accidentally ignited on the launch pad, causing an explosion that burned many of the victims beyond recognition.Secrecy has shrouded the accident at the Baikonur Space Center ever since the explosion shot flames into the Central Asian sky on Oct. 24, 1960. No official death toll or technical details of the accident have ever been released, despite several articles describing the event.
A monument to the victims lists only 54 names and published obituaries claimed that Field Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin, commander in chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, died in an unrelated plane crash.
James Oberg, an American expert on the Soviet space program, said Western observers estimated the death toll to be as high as 300. He said in an interview from his Houston home that many victims were immediately shipped back to Moscow for burial.
The newspaper said the rocket was a new design, and Oberg said he believes it was a new type of missile. He said space officials told him the explosion came after the first stage failed to ignite, and technicians tried to replace one component.