Hell fire. How the Soviet Plesetsk Cosmodrome exploded

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Hell fire. How the Soviet Plesetsk Cosmodrome exploded

“Everything is on fire. How many will be injured is unknown. Get ready. " A call to the military hospital of the city of Mirny arrived about half an hour after the disaster. Then no one knew that the explosion at the Plesetsk cosmodrome became one of the most massive technological accidents in the USSR. There were many wounded, dozens of people were killed. Why all this happened, still no one knows. Maybe the fault is the sloppiness of the designers? Or maybe a rag, which plugged the flow of liquid oxygen?


Plesetsk has always been perceived as a secondary launch site. Of course, the object is not as popular as Baikonur, but there is much to be proud of. The beginning of the construction of a military facility called Angara was laid by a resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU in January 1957, just three years later than Baikonur.

In the same year, the first launch complexes were built near the Plesetskaya railway station, 180 kilometers south of Arkhangelsk. Initially, space ships were not planned to be launched from here. The Angara, later renamed Plesetsk, was supposed to contain the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missiles on alert. Closer to Europe so that you could crash a potential adversary.

"Plesetsk" these days. Photo: Roscosmos

In the early 1960s, it became clear that the benefits of stationary missile systems were approaching zero. In addition, the space race between the two superpowers was gaining strength. Therefore, from the mid-1960s, the site began to be developed in two directions – rocket and space. The landfill was still used to deploy missiles, while maintenance personnel began to prepare for the launch of space satellites.

The first satellite from Plesetsk went into space five years after the flight of Yuri Gagarin. Gradually, the military orientation of the landfill was increasingly transformed into a peaceful one. Soon “Plesetsk” already with might and main participated in international programs, sending satellites of European states into orbit. In the heyday of the cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk region accounted for almost half of all world space launches!

Launch vehicle "Vostok-2M"

By the early 1980s, Plesetsk had long and successfully operated the Soviet Vostok-2M launch vehicle. The model was characterized by an extremely high degree of reliability. For almost a hundred launches, only one accident was recorded. Alas, in the early 1980s, statistics were about to change dramatically.


At 21:00 and 16 minutes on March 18, the launch of a Tselina-D reconnaissance satellite was scheduled. The device was supposed to register ground-based electromagnetic radiation of a certain spectrum, thus helping to determine the location of military facilities in other countries.

In such cases, it is customary to say "nothing portended trouble." Disasters on the "Plesetsk" has not happened for a long time. There was one, but back in 1973. After her – countless successful launches. The day before the scheduled launch, the Vostok-2M rocket, which was to be sent to reconnaissance for Tselina-D adversaries, was already flaunting on the fourth launcher.

The photo is illustrative. Source: astronews

The preflight preparation was successful; there were no comments during the general tests. A few hours remained before the launch, when the rocket began to be refueled.

“The fuel tanks were the first to be filled, and then at 6:05 p.m. liquid gas began to be charged. Refueling with an oxidizing agent was suspended once due to the appearance of a leak of liquid oxygen at the junction of the filling compound and the filling valve of the third stage. Similar oxidizer leaks have occurred before, as this unit has never been known for tightness, ”Kommersant quoted 20 years after the crash of test rocket Sergey Ivanov. On the day of the accident, he was on duty at the Plesetsk command post.

According to him, the leak was not perceived as something extraordinary. On the platform from which the rocket was serviced, a piece of cloth was raised, which was supposed to wind up the leak. Done it or not, today no longer find out. It is only known that after a short pause, refueling was resumed. And at 19:01 the sky flashed.

The photo is illustrative.

A sudden explosion lit up the dark sky. In no time, the pad turned into a fiery hell. Under a hundred tons of kerosene and almost 200 tons of liquid oxygen did not leave a chance to the maintenance personnel who completed the final pre-flight preparations. “Relieve stress from the board!” – the only thing that one of the officers managed to shout out. A second later, he and another 43 people were burned in a powerful flame.

“I heard four claps and almost immediately a speakerphone command:“ To the entire combat crew to evacuate. ” The voice was calm. Out of 214 launches, all of my rockets took off. Therefore, I was sure of a successful launch of this one. Even when I saw the burning start, I thought that now we will put out and launch everything. But the fire was so powerful that the service farms bent and looked like burnt-out Bengal lights, ”later recalled Vasily Shevchenko, at that time the acting head of the compressor station department.

Meanwhile, in the military hospital of Mirny hastily prepared for the influx of burnt soldiers. All local doctors were urgently summoned to the hospital, the intensive care and surgical wards were quickly released, an ultrasound scan and a device for spraying drugs were taken from Gomel when the upper respiratory tract was affected.

The photo is illustrative.

For doctors, this was the first such a massive tragedy. The situation was complicated by the fact that the soldiers not only burned, but were poisoned by gases formed due to the burning of fuel and cables. It was after the disaster at Plesetsk in medicine that a new term appeared – thermochemical damage.

In total, the hospital took 43 people injured during the accident. Four of them died. Thus, the number of victims of the disaster increased to 48 people.

A rag or filter?

The fire was extinguished for several more days. At the same time, a government commission began investigating the causes of the accident. It included dozens of people, from prominent scientists and specialists in space rocket technology to senior military and government officials.

Conclusions had to be built literally from the air. Firstly, there was nothing to investigate – after the explosion at the training ground, almost nothing remained. Secondly, for obvious reasons, there were no direct witnesses who were at the rocket at the time of the accident. Even the number of explosions and the place of their occurrence remained unclear. In general, I had to rely on the testimonies of people who were away from the rocket.

In the end, they recalled the testimony of a leak of liquid oxygen and rags, which they lifted to the site in order to wind up the leak. In itself, liquid oxygen is a very powerful oxidizing agent, when interacting with which organic matter quickly burns out with a large release of heat. Contact of liquid oxygen with a chemically active material, which could be on a rag, can lead to the release of atomic oxygen heated to almost a thousand degrees.

So the commission decided: as a result of a violation of technological discipline, one of the attendants bandaged the leak with a piece of cloth, it ignited, which ultimately led to an explosion. The guilty are punished by the consequences of their actions. It would seem that you can put an end to this.

However, a year later, this version had to be doubted. In the summer of 1981, before the next rocket launch, the disaster almost repeated. Fortunately, the soldier noticed heated hoses for refueling with hydrogen peroxide. They began to sort it out and found out that defective filters made at the Frunze NGO almost led to a new tragedy. Thought: could the same thing happen a year ago? In addition, there was still no absolute evidence that the leak was wrapped in a rag.

Photo source: Roscosmos

Already in the 1990s, a new commission was appointed, which justified the command of the spaceport and came to the conclusion that the cause of the explosion could be a malfunction of refueling equipment.

However, the leadership of the Frunze NGO also found counterarguments. Like, before launching at the cosmodrome, they had to check the entire launch system, including filters. In addition, defective items would make themselves felt during previous launches.

Whatever actually happened at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the early spring of 1980, this will not return the dead. The public became aware of the disaster itself only a few years later. And the reconnaissance satellite, which would vigilantly monitor any enemy, was launched anyway after a couple of months.

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