The Proton-M rocket just seconds after launch, breaking up and crashing to earth.
A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying three satellites to orbit crash-landed just seconds after being launched from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan on Tuesday. No one was injured, but the explosion produced a cloud of toxic gas, unleashing panic among the region’s residents. Some are furious that their health might be endangered because of the Russian space programme.
The rocket was supposed to launch satellites that would provide information for the GLONASS navigation system, which Russia is developing to compete with the GPS system and Europe’s Galileo system, also under development. Due to a motor failure, the rocket veered off its trajectory seconds after takeoff, turned around and broke up in two pieces before crashing to earth in a loud and fiery explosion 2.5 kilometres from the launch site.
Amateur video of the crash posted on YouTube by TheMrSuslov.
The explosion could have serious health consequences for the residents of Baikonur, a town located some 50 kilometres from the rocket base, and the region in general. The Proton-M is powered by a 500-tonne combination of several fuels. The accident set the liquids on fire, causing thick plumes of smoke that could be seen from far away.
Photo posted on Twitter by@Aisahdov.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Insights showed that heptyl fuels, which were among the fuels used in the rocket, can cause cancer and genetic mutations. Heptyl fuels can stay in the ground for years. Even after a successful launch, remnants of burnt heptyl can continue to pose a threat to public health.
After the explosion, Kazakh authorities evacuated some of the staff at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and ordered residents to stay indoors and cut off air conditioning to prevent outside air from coming in. The director of the Khrunichev Space Centre, which makes the Proton rockets, played down the risk of toxic pollution caused by this accident. In addition, Russian and Kazakh authorities stated there are no health risks to local residents.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in arid steppes in the middle of Kazakhstan, was built in 1955 while the country was still part of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, shortly after the Soviet Union’s fall, Russia has leased the site from Kazakhstan. However, despite the economic benefits, Kazakhstan has expressed strong concern about damage to the environment. During negotiations to extend the lease to 2050, the country’s authorities managed to convince Russia to let them participate in oversight of the facility, as well as participate in the development of less-polluting rockets.
Another Proton-M rocket had already exploded in December 2010, shortly after take-off.

“People prefer to endanger their children’s health rather than leave Baikonur”

Gulya Vivikova (not her real name) lives in Baikonur.
My husband is works at the Baikonur base. After the explosion, when he came home, he felt sick, and since then, he has a strange, sweet taste in his mouth. They gave vitamin injections to everyone who was at the site, and several people were hospitalised.
As for me, I felt nauseated after the explosion. There’s panic in the town; people fear the toxic fumes will blow towards us and poison us. So they’ve gone to pharmacies en masse to buy masks.
People are aware of the health risks posed by the rocket base, but they also know full well that the town will die if the Russians stop using the site: before they started leasing the site in 1994, monthly salaries were around 3,000 to 5,000 rubles (around 75-100 euros). Now, the average salary is around 30,000 rubles (around 750 euros). That’s a lot higher than nearby towns. People prefer to risk their children’s health rather than leave here. They’re prepared to suffer and save up lots of money, build new homes in Russia and then leave here forever.
However, you have to be Russian to benefit from this. For me, it’s almost impossible to find a job with some sort of link to the base. Even though I’m married to a Russian, I can’t obtain Russian nationality unless I live on Russian soil permanently. Two years ago, young people protested and called for the Russians to leave.
I don’t believe for a second that the launches will end: Kazakhstan will almost certainly receive some form of compensation for Tuesday’s launch failure. In a way, it’s profitable to Kazakhstan if Russia’s rocket launches fail. [Editor’s Note: The loss of three satellites is estimated to cost Russia 200 million euros].
Post written with Polina Myakinchenko and Corentin Bainier.