ROCKET EXPLOSIONS, TOXIC FUEL AND THE ENVIRONMENT IN KAZAKHSTAN

SPACE PROGRAM AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Kazakhstan has been angered by the environmental damages caused by failed launches of rockets under Russian control at Baikonur. In 1999, two launch explosions caused the spread of toxic fuel and rocket parts all over the Kazakh steppe. After that Russia was required to get permission for all rocket launchings instead of simply notifying the Kazakh government as was

In January 2005, the science journal "Nature" published study led by epidemiologist Sergei Zykov of Vector, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk. Zykov, that found health problems in children in the Altai region downrange from Baikonur space center. His team examined the 1998 to 2000 health records of about 1,000 children. It concluded that -- compared to the regional average -- children in the worst-affected area were twice as likely to contract endocrine and blood disorders. Their levels of other diseases also were markedly higher. [Source: Don Hill, Radio Free Europe, January 12, 2005 <^>]

Erkin Shaymaghambetov, chief of the Department of Objects Control and Exploitation at the Kazakh State Aviation and Space Committee, which is based at Baikonur, said: "Representatives of the Environment Protection Ministry work here at the Cosmodrome. They provide control of the [environmental] situation. Here, we live ourselves in this city, and we do not feel any impact of the launches. Scientists have proven that the influence of the space activities on ecology is minimal." <^>

Mels Eleusizov is chief of the Almaty-based Tabighat, a Kazakh environmental group, said: "Do you know the volume of oxygen destroyed by every launched rocket? Proton rockets are still being launched. They use hepthil, which is a very toxic fuel. One gram of hepthil contaminates 2 cubic kilometers of air. That is why we can say that the ecological situation in the Baikonur area is drastic." <^>

An editorial accompanying the Nature article says: "The first detailed epidemiological study of people living under the flight path suggests that the rocket fuel is indeed causing health problems. The study has not been peer reviewed, but it is funded by a respected organization. At the very least, it should serve as a warning flag to any agency that uses the base." <^>

NASA and ESA rockets often launch from Baikonur. But both the European and U.S. space agencies disclaim any responsibility for possible human or environmental problems. An ESA spokesman told "Nature" that the agency buys a service from Baikonur and is not responsible for what occurs as a result. The "Nature" editorial argues otherwise. It says the two agencies should fund a broad study and publish the results as soon as possible. The magazine warns that various interests have potential motivations for disguising the truth. Launches from Baikonur generate important income for the Russian space program. And researchers sometimes are tempted to exaggerate data in their efforts to win grants for additional research. <^>

Rocket Debris and Downrange Areas at Baikonur

According to russianspaceweb.com: “Originally, Soviet authorities would make sure that all spent stages were properly recovered and returned to Baikonur. In July 1956, a detached test station, OIS, subordinated to the chief of the armaments service of Baikonur was formed. It was deployed at the village of Ladyzhenka in the Akmolinsk Region (Oblast) and tasked with the recovery of spent rocket stages. In 1971, the unit was moved to Tselinograd, (Astana). [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com <=>]

“In May 1960, the OIS-7 base was formed based in Dzhezkazgan, which would be located in the path of the rockets heading to the Earth orbit with the inclination 51.6 degrees, which would eventually become a trajectory of choice for the manned space program. Yet, another OIS unit was formed in January 1967, with its base in Ust-Kamenogorsk, in the Eastern Kazakhstan Region. It included at least 100 soldiers and sported its own farm. <=>

“However as number of launches grew and the secrecy around rocket technology was relaxed, more and more space junk remained rusting in the grasslands. In the 1970s, the construction of the monumental launch complex for the Energia-Buran system prompted the authorities to "cannibalize" the workforce dedicated to the cleanup of drop zones. The Soviet leadership even considered to disband the task force involved in the effort. As a result, countless debris, often containing toxic propellant components, were littering virgin lands of Kazakhstan. Mixed with rising anti-Russian sentiment and ill-informed public opinion about real dangers of rocket debris, this political and environmental minefield finally exploded in the face of Russian officials on the eve of the Soviet collapse at the beginning of the 1990s. <=>

“In the spring of 1990, a 500-man-strong battalion was formed to jump-start clean up efforts downrange from Baikonur. According to the leader of the group, considerable progress was made in both cleaning the impact zones and in getting the new experience in the utilization of large pieces of debris. The compaign was repeated in 1991, and, according to its participant, resulted in significant cleanup of impact sites. <=>

Toxic Fuel, Saiga Antelope and Scrap Metal Downrange from Baikonur

Jonas Bendiksen and Laara Matsen wrote in Eurasia.net, “All space-bound rockets consist largely of fuel tanks and booster stages that fall back to earth when spent, never reaching orbit. In landlocked Baikonur, Russia's primary launching complex in Kazakhstan, these spaceships crash to earth. people living under the flight paths must contend with flaming spaceship wrecks several times each month. [Source: Jonas Bendiksen and Laara Matsen, Eurasia.net, April 19, 2002 == ]

“Apart from the fear of having a spaceship crash through their roofs, residents in the area complain of the ill effects of leftover toxic rocket fuel. With the relocation of Russian military launches, more than half of which currently take off from Baikonur, these people may get some relief. However, one group of people is probably sorry to see Baikonur lose business -- the region's scrap metal dealers are getting rich trading metal from the rockets' titanium alloy hulls.” ==

There were once 3 million saiga — a kind of wild antelope with a strange snout — roaming the steppes of Kazakhstan. Now there are only around 150,000. The rest have been lost to hunters, loss of habitat and pollution. Hundreds of thousands of saiga are believed to have died as a result of a single accident in 1985 when a Proton rocket blasting off from the cosmodrome at Baiknonure crashed a sprayed fuel over thousands of square kilometers of steppe.

Russian Rocket Crashes 25 Kilometers Downrange from Baikonur

In July 2006, a Russian rocket carrying 18 satellites crashed soon after lift-off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The BBC reported: According to mission control officials, the engines of the Dnepr rocket shut down 86 seconds into its flight. The rocket crashed some 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, without causing injuries on the ground, but all of the 18 satellites on board were destroyed. [Source: BBC, July 27, 2006]

Associated Press reported: “Preliminary reports said a problem occurred when the rocket's third stage detached. Kazakh officials said the engine shut off 73 seconds into the flight. No injuries or damage were reported, but there are fears that the crash seriously polluted the area with the highly poisonous fuel heptyl.[Source: Associated Press, August 1, 2006]

Seventeen of the satellites were being launched for foreign customers, including the US and Italy. One of those was to have been the first satellite operated by Belarus, whose president, Aleksander Lukashenko, had gone to Baikonur to see the launch, local media reported. "A special emergency team has been formed to probe into the causes of the failed launch," said a spokesman for the Russian space agency Roskosmos, quoted by Itar-Tass news agency.

"According to preliminary findings problems in the first stage of the booster rocket in the 74th second of the flight was the main reason," Igor Panarin said. In October 2005, a Russian rocket crashed while carrying a European satellite that was to have monitored the thickness of the Earth's polar ice.

After the crash Kazakhstan banned Dnepr rockets. According to Associated Press: “The launch of Russian Dnepr rockets from Kazakhstan has been suspended indefinitely following the crash of a rocket last week, a Kazakh official said. Kazakh emergency officials said the concentration of various toxic and other harmful substances around the location exceeded permissible levels by at least 1,000 times. Russia is expected to compensate Kazakhstan for any environmental damage. The Soviet-era Baikonur cosmodrome will be barred from launching Dnepr rockets until the cause of the crash is established, said Azamat Abdymomunov, who heads a government commission probing the accident. [Source: Associated Press, August 1, 2006]

The next scheduled satellite launch from Baikonur is a Proton rocket. The Proton also uses heptyl, but was not affected by the Dnepr suspension. A Dnepr rocket successfully lofted Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 inflatable module into orbit in June 2006.

Russia’s Proton Rocket Explodes and Releases Toxic Fuel in Kazakhstan

In July 2013, a Russia’s Proton-M carrier rocket equipped with a DM-3 booster carrying three Glonass-M navigation satellites crashed right after the lift-off at Baikonur cosmodrome. According to Eurasia insurance company, the rocket contained almost 500 tons of toxic fuel consisting of heptyl and amyl. There immediate reports of causalities but locals were concerned about the impact of so much toxic fuel on the environment where the rocket crashed. RIA Novosti reported: “ Citing an unidentified source, RIA Novosti reports that launches from Baikonur will be suspended for the following 2-3 months. The official explanation of the causes is to be voiced in the days to come. “Such incidents have already taken place. I think launches will be resumed in 2-3 months’ time”, he said. [Source: RIA Novosti, July 2, 2013]

Tengri News reported: An unmanned Russian carrier rocket exploded on takeoff at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, releasing tonnes of highly toxic fuel into the air in the space programme's latest disaster caught on live television, AFP reports.Spectacular footage showed the Proton-M rocket veering off its trajectory just seconds after its 6:38 am (0238 GMT) launch, before falling apart in mid-air, erupting into a ball of flames and unleashing clouds of noxious black smoke. "It seems something is going wrong," said a Russian television commentator during the live coverage of the launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan. "Something is wrong. It seems it will be a catastrophe," said the presenter, his voice trembling, shortly before the rocket exploded. [Source: Tengri News, July 2, 2013 +++]

“The rocket, which fell back into the area of the Baikonur cosmodrome which Russia leases from ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, was supposed to take three Russian Glonass-M navigation satellites into space. The rocket carried 600 tonnes of kerosene, heptyl and amyl which are highly poisonous components of rocket fuel, said the head of the Kazakh space agency, Talgat Musabayev. The Russian space agency Roskosmos, citing preliminary information, said the accident caused no damage or casualties but the crash site was immediately cordoned off and residents of nearby towns including Baikonur were told to stay indoors and keep their windows shut. +++

“Heptyl is a highly poisonous component of rocket fuel and is known to be more toxic than the chemical weapon sarin. Some experts suggested the fumes may find their way into drinking water. Locals said the explosion sounded like thunder and that they were not unduly concerned about their safety. "They asked us to stay indoors and not to open windows," said Mukhtar Umurzakov, a 46-year-old driver, who lives in the town of Kyzyl-Orda some 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Baikonur. "They also said you cannot release cattle out to pasture but no one paid attention," he told AFP. +++

“Officials in Kazakhstan said that a cloud of fumes that had formed over the cosmodrome could move beyond the area. Head of the emergencies ministry in Kazakhstan, Vladimir Bozhko, was quoted as saying that early indications showed the accident was caused by a malfunction of a first-stage engine. Experts say the disaster is a major blow to the reputation of the reliable Proton-M rocket."Proton is our main workhorse for commercial use," space analyst Vadim Lukashevich told AFP. "Businessmen will now start thinking whether they should look for another carrier." He added that Russia would likely come under more pressure from Kazakhstan to increase rental payments for the cosmodrome. +++

“Prominent Kazakh environmental activist Mels Yeleusizov blamed the Russians for the disaster. "This is real slovenliness indeed. Accidents happen all the time," he said. "It's high time to ban this Proton." Though key accomplishments like sending the first man into space in 1961 have brought Russia's space programme acclaim, it has recently suffered several major setbacks, notably losing expensive satellites and an unmanned supply ship to the International Space Station.

Protests in Kazakhstan After the Proton Rocket Explosion

A group of activists gathered near the Russian General Consulate in Almaty after the crash of Proton-M rocket at Baikonur, They brought a letter of protest, calling for a review of agreements that allow Russia to rent out various sites in Kazakhstan, including Baikonur cosmodrome. “A big accident happened... 500 tons of heptyl polluted the air and water. Baikonur citizens were told to stay home and keep their windows shut. We believe that a big damage was caused to our country and its citizens and Russia has to compensate it. No Russian rockets should be launched from Baikonur until Russia does that,” political activist Aidos Sarym told reporters. [Source: Roza Yessenkulova, Tengri News, July 3, 2013 |=|]

Tengri News reported: “The activists wrote a letter to Russian authorities in two languages and attached photos of children with congenial defects. The activists say that these are photos of victims of space tests. Besides, the activists prepared demotivators and posters saying “Close Russian polygons!” and “Heptyl is genocide” and others. “Russian rockets cripple Kazakhstan people, and if they are fine with children being born disabled, let them move these polygons to their lands,” Sarym said. Seven polygons rented from Kazakhstan for $27 million are almost the size of Europe, he added. But now it is impossible to plant anything on these lands. |=|

“However, the Kazakhstan activists got no opportunity to pass the letter to any of the Russian diplomats personally. Nobody came out to meet them, although the citizens sent a notification to the consulate’s employees beforehand. A young man who introduced himself as a security service employee of the Russian embassy later approached the activists. “Your meeting is unauthorized and I am asking you to leave. If you don’t, we will have to take actions. There are currently no diplomats in the consulate, they are all out right now,” he said. "You can leave your letters in the box and we will consider them,” the man said and left immediately. |=|

“This is outrageous,” a prominent public figure of Kazakhstan and one of the campaign’s initiator Mukhtar Taizhan said. “We consider it, put it nicely, impolite on the side of the friendly country, Russia. The accident happened, but they did not even come out to talk to our citizens,” he added. The activists left the letter and photos of the disabled children in the box at the consulate’s entrance. “We will wait for their response,” Taizhan said.” |=|

Another Proton Crash Deals a Blow to the Russian Space Sector

May 2015, a Proton rocket lifted off successfully but ran into trouble about eight minutes later and crashed. Stephen Clark of spaceflightnow.com wrote: “Failure struck Russia’s troubled space program for the second time in three weeks, when a Proton rocket carrying a high-tech satellite for Mexico’s new $1.6 billion space-based communications network crashed shortly after liftoff. The 191-foot-tall Proton rocket launched at 0547:39 GMT (1:47:39 a.m. EDT; 11:47:39 a.m. local time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, smoothly climbed through low clouds and disappeared from the view of cameras at the arid Central Asia spaceport. [Source: Stephen Clark, spaceflightnow.com, May 16, 2015 \+\]

“The first phase of the launch appeared to proceed according to plan, but something went wrong less than 10 minutes after liftoff. A statement issued by Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — said an “emergency situation” occurred during the launch, but the press release provided no further details. Russian news reports said the Proton rocket’s third stage failed about eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, just before the booster was programmed to disconnect from a Breeze M upper stage designed to guide the Mexican government’s Mexsat 1 satellite into an orbit stretching more than 22,000 miles above Earth. \+\

“The state-owned Tass news agency reported the preliminary cause of the accident was in the steering engine on the Proton’s third stage. A Russian space industry source quoted by Tass said the rocket likely fell back to the ground from an altitude of 160 kilometers — about 100 miles — and burned up in the atmosphere. Any debris that survived the high-speed descent probably fell in a region near Chita, a city in Siberia near Russia’s southern border with Mongolia and China, according to Tass. \+\

“The Proton rocket’s third stage is powered by a single RD-0213 main engine producing 131,000 pounds of thrust. A four-nozzle “vernier” engine on the third stage is designed to steer the rocket on the correct path into space. The rocket’s guidance, navigation and control system is a triple-redundant digital avionics package on the third stage.

Russian Space Troubles in 2014 and 2015

In April 2015, a Progress supply ship with food, spare parts and experiments for the International Space Station was lost minutes after 28 launch . A different Progress freighter had to abort a planned reboost of the space station’s orbit Saturday, Roscosmos said.

In May 2014, a Proton launch failure, which destroyed a Russian communications satellite after an anomaly in the booster’s third stage propulsion system. An investigation into the May 2014 launch failure concluded the “probable cause of the failure was the loss of structural integrity of a bolted interface that attaches the (third stage) steering engine turbopump to the main engine structural frame,” ILS said in a statement released in September.

The Proton rocket flew successfully six times after the May 2014 mishap. Before the crash in May 2015, Proton rocket or its Breeze M upper stage failed six times in 43 flights since December 2010. Two other Proton/Breeze M missions in that period put their payloads into off-target orbits, but the satellites were able to recover from the shortfalls and continue their missions.

International Launch Services (ILS) — an American-Russian joint venture with offices in Virginia — placed the Russian Yamal 402 communications satellite in the wrong orbit in 2012, but the spacecraft had enough on-board fuel to salvage its primary mission. A malfunction in the Breeze M upper stage on an ILS mission in 2008 left the AMC 14 commercial telecom platform off its target. The satellite’s owner declared the satellite a total loss and collected an insurance payment, then insurers sold the spacecraft to the U.S. Defense Department, which maneuvered the satellite into a usable orbit. Before Saturday, the last Proton failure that destroyed a payload under the auspices of ILS came in 2007.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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