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Russian rocket failure poisons relations

The crash of a Russian space booster poisoned a small corner of the Central Asian steppes — and may have left a wider legacy of bitterness as well. Analysis by NBC's James Oberg.
An aerial view of the Kazakh steppes reveals a crater created by the crash of debris from a Russian Dnepr rocket last month.
An aerial view of the Kazakh steppes reveals a crater created by the crash of debris from a Russian Dnepr rocket last month.Anton Podgorniy

Last month's crash of a Russian Dnepr space booster with 100 tons of toxic rocket propellant poisoned a small corner of the empty steppes in Central Asia — but may have left a wider legacy of bitterness that will impact Russian space activities for years to come.

And whatever the actual cause of the rocket’s embarrassing failure, the poisonous consequences could have been largely avoided if Moscow space officials hadn’t reverted to almost Soviet-style cover-ups and hollow reassurances about the accident.

The human cost of the accident was, initially, zero — as far as is known, nobody was killed or even injured when the debris fell back to Earth. At one point part of the rocket exploded fiercely, digging a crater 165 feet (50 meters) wide and 50 feet (15 meters) deep. Bland assurances that “all is well” were belied by a blackout on photographs of the impact site and on interviews with recovery personnel.

So in the weeks that followed, local residents grew more anxious, and demands for damages skyrocketed as some villagers requested evacuation as well as remuneration for the loss of their pastoral incomes — out of fear that no one would buy food products from such a poisoned region. Kazakh politicians, including a former Soviet cosmonaut, denounced the lack of apparent cooperation and candor from Russian officials.

Midnight disaster
The disaster began near midnight local time on July 26-27, as the converted military missile climbed toward space along an unusual and potentially dangerous trajectory. Because the payloads were aiming for a peculiar polar orbit that actually was slightly tilted against Earth’s rotation, the ascent’s ground track was slightly westerly of due south.

From Pad 109 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, such a path soon took the ascending rocket nearly directly over the city of Baikonur and neighboring villages where 100,000 people live. Only a handful of the thousands of space and missile launches from Baikonur in the past half-century had ever headed in this direction — the others flew to the northeast, wringing the greatest energy benefit from Earth’s spin while carefully dodging the Chinese border.

So when word came that the rocket had failed 86 seconds into its flight, observers quickly grew concerned over where it was going to come down. Their worst fears soon seemed to be confirmed by reports of an impact 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the launch pad — well within the boundaries of the inhabited region.

Fortunately, that figure was soon revealed to have been garbled. The rocket’s autopilot had shut the engines off near the end of the first-stage burn, when it was 15 miles along its predicted ground track, but high in space and already moving very fast. The rocket continued to fall forward for what would be a great distance, toward the open semidesert extending southward toward Uzbekistan.

‘No casualties or damage’
Another garbled report also arose, with longer-lasting consequences. “No casualties or environmental damage have been reported,” officials quickly declared — even though they didn't yet know where the rocket, with half its fuel still unburned, had hit the ground. Yuri Nosenko, deputy head of the Federal Space Agency, told reporters at the launch site: “Neither fatalities nor damage have been reported from the site of the crash.”

A couple of hours later, space agency spokesman Igor Panarin said that fragments of the rocket landed around the Kazakh-Uzbek border, and that "no people or settlements in the area where the stages came down were affected.” He was certain of that, apparently, because that’s they way he wanted it to be — and it was a good guess, looking at a map of mostly-empty wasteland.

An aerial search located a fresh explosion crater 93 miles (150 kilometers) south of Baykonur, along the track that radar indicated the rocket’s main body had fallen. Panarin was quick to issue an all-is-well: “According to preliminary reports, all the toxic fuel had burned away while the rocket was falling and there is no fuel leak at the crash site,” he told reporters.

Toxic chemicals
Observers were concerned because the chemicals used as propellant in this type of rocket were particularly toxic. The rocket had originally been designed as a military missile, so it used storable room-temperature fluids that would explode when mixed in a rocket chamber, even without an electrical or other kind of igniter. Such hypergolic fuels are still used in Russia’s biggest space booster, the Proton, and had been used in the American Titan rocket family. The most common hypergolic propellants have been nitrogen tetroxide in one tank, and one of several forms of a chemical called hydrazine in the other.

Even in small amounts, these chemicals can be lethal. Just a whiff can burn out a victim’s lungs, and just a sprinking into the soil can poison surface and subsurface water reservoirs.

Once on-site reports started coming in, Panarin conceded that permissible contamination levels were “exceeded slightly” close to the crater — but he was happy to report that water drawn from wells at the nearest village 20 miles (32 kilometers) away showed no fuel traces. Nor should they have been expected to, since it takes time for underground water to flow. The faster transport is on the wind, and Panarin scrupulously avoided describing any chemical test results from surface water or on growing plants.

The concentrations inside the crater, investigators soon discovered, were a thousand times higher than permissible levels. Not a problem, Panarin explained: “In the high desert temperatures, the fuel will evaporate and blow away.”

Kazakhs on the case
In the following two weeks, Panarin and other space officials continued the tune that the rocket had fallen to Earth at the one site and that all environmental damage occurred there — while refusing to release any photographs of the site or of any debris recovered there.

Anton Podgorniy

Unfortunately for Moscow’s credibility, Kazakh emergency services, Kazakh journalists and local residents conducted an intensive ground search along the entire ground track of the failed mission and began finding what seemed to be additional rocket pieces far from the one acknowledged crater.

That crater, meanwhile, turned out not to have been in the wasteland that officials had first reported. Herdsmen from Zhankala, the village closest to the crater, often pasture their cattle, horses, and camels in that area, and depend on nearby groves of saksaul trees for firewood.

The reegional governor, Ikram Adyrbekov, put the total damages at more than $300 million, counting damage to animals, the economy and health, as well as possibly resettling the inhabitants of several nearby villages. Russian officials deemed such figures “hasty” and “irresponsible.”

Legislators complain
Ten days after the crash, two members of Kazakhstan's lower legislative chamber complained that Russia was not fulfilling its obligations related to the crash. One of the authors was Tokhtar Aubakirov, a Soviet cosmonaut who had visited the Mir space station in 1991. He criticized the inefficiency of the Russian recovery effort, “proven by the fact that local residents have found some pieces of the rocket” in places the Russians never thought to look.

Some of these areas are closer to the launch site, and hence closer to more populated regions (and to the area where the very first reports had suggested the rocket had fallen). According to the Khabar News Agency a ground team found a 5-foot-long (1.5-meter) nose cone in a crater about 2 feet (60 centimeters) deep just 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Baikonur. And on Friday, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Baikonur, a helicopter search team found fragments of the second and third stages as well as some “mangled and deformed” satellites the rocket had been carrying.

Picking up the pieces of the rocket, and the pieces of the Russian-Kazakh agreements over safe space launches from Baykonur, is going to take much longer than initially predicted. Russian space officials such as Panarin have seen their credibility, like the doomed rocket, go down in flames. The return to flight, and the return to trust, is going to take a lot of work.

An earlier version of this report misstated one of the components of hypergolic propellants.