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Soviets Open Busiest Spaceport, Reveal Deadly Accident

September 27, 1989

PLESETSK SPACE CENTER, USSR (AP) _ The Soviets ended decades of secrecy Wednesday by opening the world’s busiest spaceport to foreign journalists and revealing one of the worst disasters of the space age - the 1980 explosion of a Vostok rocket during fueling that killed 50 people.

Moscow-based correspondents were invited to this military facility set among birch forests and lakes 530 miles north of the Soviet capital to observe back-to-back launches of a Soviet Molniya television satellite and an East Bloc research probe designed to reveal secrets of the ionosphere.

The officially sanctioned trip to the spaceport in northwestern Russia - whose existence was acknowledged by the Soviets only five years ago - was further proof of the increased candor in Soviet society as well as the space establishment’s pursuit of foreign clients and funds.

″This is a time of openness and we have to make everything known that was hidden before, like how space has been mastered, and what scientific results are being obtained,″ said Army Lt. Gen. Ivan I. Oleinik, the space center’s commander. Also, he said, ″We need to learn how to count money.″

To help their space program yield bigger commercial dividends, the Soviets are hunting for foreign partners in space. In April, the first commercial payload was launched at Plesetsk for the French firm Matra. Last month, a West German consortium’s experiment to grow protein crystals in orbit was launched.

The growing commercialization and resulting welcome given foreigners at Plesetsk is something new in the history of the base, founded in 1957 as a top-secret launch site for Soviet military missiles that would be relatively near U.S. targets on the other side of the North Pole.

Behind the electrified barbed wire fences and armed guards 186 miles south of the White Sea port of Archangelsk lies what East and West agree is the world’s busiest space center.

In his respected annual report on the Soviet space program, Nicolas Johnson of Teledyne Brown Engineering said that by 1987, the number of launches into space from Plesetsk had reached 1,159 - more than all total U.S., European, Japanese and Chinese space launches combined.

Oleinik, interviewed on the launch pad minutes before blast-off of the four-stage Soyuz booster rocket carrying the Molniya, put the number of launches at Plesetsk at ″1,000 and some-odd.″

″This is the world’s hardest-working spaceport,″ the general added.

Under the Kremlin’s openness policy, stunning revelations have been made about failures in the Soviet space program, including the 1960 explosion of an ICBM that killed the head of Soviet missile forces, Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, and 53 others at the famous Soviet space center Baikonur, home of the country’s manned space program.

Soviet space specialists, however, say there has been no public mention of accidents at Plesetsk. But a 30-foot-high rocket-shaped aluminum monument in the base’s bedroom community of Mirny honors the victims of two apparently previously unreported disasters.

On March 18, 1980, a Vostok rocket - the same two-stage booster used to send Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961 - exploded while being fueled on the launch pad. Forty-five people, mostly Soviet Army inductees in their late teens and early 20s, were instantly burned to death, said Anatoly Lapshin, senior scientific collaborator in Plesetsk’s commercial department.

Five other men, who suffered burns over as much as 90 percent of their bodies, died after being hospitalized, Lapshin said.

The 45 killed instantly were buried under red granite tombstones next to the monument near the shore of Lake Plesetsk, and their enameled portraits were affixed on two low concrete walls. In front of a row of fir trees, an eternal flame burns in memory of ″the heroes.″

Despite 4 1/2 years of the Kremlin’s official openness policy, nothing yet has been written by state media about one of the biggest tragedies and its victims, Lapshin said.

The 1980 explosion was not the only catastrophe at Plesetsk, Lapshin said. On June 23, 1973, a Cosmos booster rocket also erupted in flames while being fueled, and nine technicians and soldiers were killed.

Lapshin said that following the accidents, government commissions met and enacted safer guidelines for the refueling of rockets.

Oveikin said the accidents were ″tragedies,″ but that human loss in the pursuit of progress was unavoidable.

″When the first automobile was tested, there were accidents too,″ the two-star general said.

The Molniya satellite, designed to rebroadcast programs from state Soviet television and provide radio-telephone service to Siberia and the Soviet Far East, shot skyward with an ear-splitting roar atop the Soyuz booster.

Nine minutes after launch, the 47-yard-high rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene was reported in orbit to journalists watching from a site nearly two miles from the launch pad.

Before dawn Thursday, technicians at Plesetsk were scheduled to launch Intercosmos-24, an East Bloc research satellite.

The spacecraft will carry a metal coil that will expand into a ring 20 yards in diameter once the satellite reaches its elliptical orbit up to 1,500 miles above Earth’s surface.

The ring will be powered by low-frequency radio waves and will become an antenna stimulating the ionosphere much the way the sun does.

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