On the night of July 26 the Russian Dnepr rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kyzylorda region, Kazakhstan, and crashed 74 seconds after launch. The 250-ton Dnepr booster rocket was meant to carry 18 foreign satellites into space, the most important cargo aboard being the first Belarusian earth exploration satellite, BelKA. Undoubtedly it was a disastrous blow for Minsk’s ambitious satellite program. Observers in the Belarusian capital city were waiting for information about their first satellite and had prepared a sizeable celebration. Instead, a frustrated President Alexander Lukashenka, who came to Baikonur only to witness the apparent loss of his country’s multi-million dollar satellite, left the launch site without saying a word to waiting journalists.
The search group dispatched to the crash site in Karmakshy district of Kyzylorda region, on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, found a 17-meter deep crater caused by exploded rocket parts. Fragments of the Dnepr were located as far as 190 kilometers away from the launch site. Kazakh authorities were especially concerned about the possible contamination of the crash area by highly toxic heptyl, used by Russian rockets as a propellant fuel. The fuel tank of Dnepr supposedly held 40 tons of the toxic fuel when it crashed. Although environmental experts found no traces of fuel contamination in the area, residents of the Komekbay village complained of strong headaches and nausea. Children from nearby villages reportedly were affected by an unknown disease (Aikyn, August 2).
Experts from Kazakhstan’s Emergency Ministry estimated that the fuel contaminated several square kilometers of the area, but Russia refuted these allegations outright. However, five days after the crash the Russian side agreed to set up a joint team of experts to investigate. The behavior of the Russian Roskosmos space agency clearly points to Moscow’s attempt to downplay the environmental contamination and health hazards from the rocket crash. “It took two and a half hours for Russians to inform the Emergency Ministry of the crash. By that time we already knew every detail of the disaster,” said Deputy Emergency Minister Bolatbek Kuandykov (Ekspress K, August 2).
Russians did not begin to search for debris, scattered across Karmakshy district, until the morning of July 27, while teams of experts from Kazakh Emergency Ministry were sent to the area within 90 minutes. Whatever the joint commission of experts concludes (its meetings are held behind closed doors and journalists are being given no information) the Dnepr crash raises questions about what Kazakhstan gains from space cooperation with Russia. The incident certainly does not raise confidence in Russian space technology. Roskosmos spokesman Igor Panarin explained that the catastrophic failure of the Dnepr was triggered by a malfunctioning rocket engine (Delovaya nedelya, July 28).
But the Dnepr crash was not the first failure since the start of the year. In February the launch of an Arab telecommunications satellite from Baikonur ended in disaster. Likewise the launch of the Kompas-2 scientific satellite, designed to forecast earthquakes and launched from a submarine of the Russian North Fleet, was an ill-fated adventure. In June some of the solar panels of a Kosmos-2421 military satellite launched from Baikonur failed to unfold. In 2000 a Proton booster rocket landed near the village of Koktas in Qaraghandy region (Central Kazakhstan).
With this grim record, Kazakhstan and Belarus have little reason to hope for successful future launches as long as they are using Russian booster rockets. Even before the joint commission convened, experts at Roskosmos hastened to announce that there was no danger of contamination of the area by toxic fuel. But even Russian experts are not unanimous on that point. The director of the Russian Environmental Policy Center, Alexei Yablokov, asserts that it takes decades for the highly toxic heptyl fuel to decompose (Central Asia Monitor, August 4).
In 1999 Kazakhstan and Russia, after repeated crashes of Proton rockets in South Kazakhstan, signed an agreement designed to ensure safe launches and settle the question of compensation for environmental damage. But Roskosmos did not respect the Kazakh demand to eliminate heptyl-propelled carrier rockets from future launches. In practice, the Kyzylorda region still remains a drop zone for harmful fragments of Russian rockets brought down by technical failures. The last disaster of the Dnepr, as reported by the joint commission of experts, caused environmental damage to Kazakhstan estimated at 194 million tenge ($1.58 million).
The Dnepr rocket was converted from the RS-20 intercontinental ballistic missile, developed by Soviet militaries in 1975 and known in the West as the SS-18 or “Satan.” A modified version of the rocket has been used in launches at Baikonur since 2004. When Belarusian President Lukashenka arrived in Baikonur he was fascinated by “exceptionally high professional level” of space specialists at the cosmodrome. But the crash of the Dnepr raises strong doubts about the reliability of Russian boosters not only in Belarus, but also in Kazakhstan, where the government has always seen Russia as an unrivalled supplier of space technologies.