An army newspaper reported Wednesday 165 people, including a top general, were killed 30 years ago when a rocket exploded on the launch pad, making it the worst known space-related accident in the Soviet Union. 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 Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, commander in chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, died in an unrelated airplane crash.
The Red Star newspaper reported on the accident's 30th anniversary Wednesday that "the tragedy at the cosmodrome caused the deaths of 165 people."
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 rocket exploded after the first stage failed to ignite, and technicians tried to replace one component.
"Somebody plugged an umbilical cord into the wrong connection," igniting the second stage, Oberg said. The flames caused fuel trucks to burst into fire, unleashing fireballs.
People in the vicinity "just burst into flames like candlewax," he said.
The Red Star account said the explosion was caused by an "unnecessary sequence of events in carrying out one of the operations while the valves of the second stage were opened, starting the engine."
Oberg, hearing the Russian-language version, said it did not offer a clear technical explanation of the accident.
The newspaper said the rocket's launch was repeatedly delayed "for technical reasons," including leaking fuel.
It quotes Stanislav Pavlov, then chief of the launch group, as saying drops of fuel burned holes in technicians' rubber gloves when the rocket's joints and tubes were checked for leaks.
"We didn't pay attention to this, but later we learned it was dangerous," he said.
Pavlov said he was standing 15 to 20 yards from the rocket when it exploded.
"The site was on fire and full of smoke," he told the newspaper. "The first thought that came to my mind was "that's it. The end.'
Pavlov said he rushed to a nearby bunker housing the control center, but was still so badly burned he spent three days unconscious and one year in the hospital recovering. He said his injury was not entered on his official record until 1988.
Pavlov said he was told Nedelin survived the blast, but died later in the hospital. He said many of the other victims were so badly burned they could not be identified visually.
Nedelin had left the bunker to look at the rocket after it failed to ignite, Oberg said. The rocket exploded while he was inspecting it.
Pavlov told the newspaper that 30 minutes prior to the launch, students and officers from a military academy left the site, otherwise the death toll could have been higher.
Rumors of the explosion soon reached the West, but remained a secret in the Soviet Union for five years until the publication of heavily edited memoirs of an executed spy, Oberg said.