Monday, August 25, 2003

Tyuratam, Alcântara:

Today was to have been the launch date for Brazil's VLS-3 (Veiculo Lançador de Satelites), or satellite launch vehicle, a new entry into the commercial satellite launch market.

On Saturday, during pre-launch testing, one of the motors apparently ignited prematurely on the pad, while technicians were still surrounding the vehicle. In the ensuing explosion and fire, twenty-one people were killed.

We easily forget that rockets are simply slightly well controlled bombs. Brazil's two previous attempts at the VLS have also failed, fortunately with no fatalities, as they were destroyed by the range safety officer after launch.

This accident is reminescent of the October 26, 1960 accident at Tyuratam, known as the Nedelin Incident, after Mitrofan Nedelin, the Commander of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces. Nedelin was under great pressure from Kruschev to deliver a successful launch, and his presence interfered greatly with normal operations where a Soviet R-16 was being hurriedly prepared for launch. Personnel was not evacuated from the area after fueling, as was required by safety regulations, and a series of compounding errors led to a horrendous event. The fully-fueled rocket exploded with about 250 people still near the launch pad, including Nedelin himself. A film of the event shows people in burning clothing trying to flee over a melting tar road. Truly horrific. Estimates of the death toll vary, ranging from 92 to 165. What is certain is that some of the very best technicians in the Soviet program were killed that day.

In the Brazilian case, at least the failure was immediately announced. It took 40 years for the Nedelin story to come out. Also, at least the hospitals in the area of the Alcântara launch facility in Brazil knew what they were dealing with for the incoming injured -- in the Soviet case, the military would not identify what chemicals the victims were covered with, which may have caused some deaths among hospital staff, due to the propellants' toxicity.

In an interesting footnote, it turns out that Leonid Brezhnev was the chairman of the investigating committee for this incident. There was no punishment recommended by the committee report - it simply noted that the guilty had been punished already.

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