A magazine has published details of the worst disaster in the Soviets' space program, indirectly blaming the deadly launch-pad explosion of an unmanned missile in 1960 on haste to catch up with the United States.
The weekly Ogonyok said in an article Sunday that workers ignored safety rules in the rush to launch the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile in the race with the United States to develop ICBMs.It said "a significant number" of people perished in the explosion and fireball of the R-16 missile at a launching pad at Tura-Tam near the Aral Sea.
The only victim identified by Ogonyok was Chief Artillery Marshal Mitrofan I. Nedelin, serving as the first commander of the newly created Soviet rocket forces. It said he was about 60 feet from the missile when it exploded.
The late Nikita S. Khrushchev, who was premier at the time of the accident, said in memoirs published in the West that dozens of soldiers and workers were killed.
Accounts of the disaster on Oct. 24, 1960, have circulated abroad, but Ogonyok's report was the first in the official Soviet media.
Launch of the R-16, which was to be the maiden flight of the Soviets' first ICBM, had been scheduled for Oct. 23 but was postponed because of an electrical defect in the engine that caused a fuel leak.
In one of the "gravest violations of safety precautions," the hatches were removed and welding work undertaken on the fully fueled rocket.
Late the next day, the launch was scheduled in 30 minutes but workers were still installing an electrical distributor that somehow gave a command to ignite the rocket's second stage.
Flames from the ignition burned through the fuel tanks of the first stage, touching off the fire and explosion.
Ogonyok quoted a worker as saying, "A stream of fire burst out of the rocket, inundating everything around it. People tried to escape by running to the covered area where cars and other equipment were, but the road literally melted in front of them, blocking the escape route."
The magazine said the heat was so intense "practically nothing was left - only some metal change, keys, etc."
In another development, the official Tass news agency said Saturday that scientists have abandoned efforts to re-establish contact with an unmanned satellite sent to examine Mars. That meant the Soviets have lost touch with both Phobos spacecraft launched at a cost of $480 million.