Rocket Wildfire in Kazakhstan Kills Member of Clean-Up Crew

Hot, windy weather may have exacerbated the grass fire that killed a rocket debris collector on Wednesday.

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Jun 15 2017, 5:39pm

Coverage of Wednesday launch from Baikonur. Video: YouTube/Roscosmos/Tsenki & NASA TV

A wildfire sparked by Russian rocket debris claimed the life of Kazakh man Yuri Khatyushin, and hospitalized his colleague Vyacheslav Tyts, confirmed local emergency services on Thursday. The men were employed by NPO Mashinostroyeniya, a Russian rocket design bureau, and were working to locate and collect fallen booster fragments.

The fire started after the Wednesday launch of a Soyuz-2.1a rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on a cargo resupply trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in low-Earth orbit. Since the 2011 retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle fleet, based mainly out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, Baikonur has been the sole spaceport on Earth equipped to transport humans to the ISS. Astronauts also aim to touchdown in Kazakhstan when they return from the station.

Coverage of Wednesday launch from Baikonur. Video: YouTube/Roscosmos/Tsenki & NASA TV

According to Ruslan Imankulov, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's emergency situations committee, the spent boosters jettisoned during the rocket's ascent landed about 375 miles (600 kilometers) from Baikonur in the steppes near the city of Zhezkazgan. Though the launch detritus landed within the planned fallout zone, the unusually dry, blustering conditions may have provided a dangerous amount of kindling. As a result, the grass fire ignited by the rocket remains raged over nine miles wide at its peak.

NPO Mashinostroyeniya claims that the fire was exacerbated by extreme heat (34℃) and wind gusts reaching 15 meters per second. One of these fiery gusts engulfed Khatyushin's truck, killing him before rescue workers could reach him, the report said. The fire was eventually extinguished by first responders on Wednesday evening.

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Baikonur is no stranger to launch-related fatalities. The infamous 1960 explosion of an R-16 intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the Nedelin catastrophe, killed 126 people at the cosmodrome, in what Roscosmos has called "the most horrific [tragedy] in the history of space exploration."

Though Baikonur hasn't experienced another disaster on that scale, the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northwest Russia suffered the loss of 48 Soviet soldiers in 1980 due to the launchpad detonation of a Vostok rocket.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Baikonur Cosmodrome has been leased from the Kazakh government by the Russian Federation. The Wednesday wildfire has brought political tensions between Kazakhs and Russians to the surface. "Russia is launching its rockets and our people are running around in their own land and putting out fires," wrote an unidentified commenter, as quoted in this BBC article. "It is ridiculous."

Such resentments at Baikonur have spurred Russian space advocates to develop another major spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, within Russian borders in the far east Amur oblast. The first crewed spaceflights from Vostochny are scheduled to take place within the next decade.

In the meantime, as the only facility capable of transporting human crews to and from the ISS, Baikonur remains vitally important to the global space sector.

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