top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#161 - Chris Lintott and Explosions

I was recruited to The Sky at Night team, first as a researcher and then increasingly as a reporter and co-presenter Prof Chris Lintott

This week we have a brilliant chat with British Space Legend Chris Lintott. Catch him on the Sky at Night. We Take a close look at the disasters that have happened in Space History that involved members of the public and the people who worked on the rockets. And of course, we take a look at the space news including the ESA space19+ results.

Space disasters

A recent Chinese long march rocket launch, for their Chinese GPS sats, again dumped a toxic booster stage on a populated area. Think how bad this really is. As we’ll see this is not an uncommon occurrence and we’ve talked about it a few times on this podcast.

China launch facility is very landlocked so unlike most of the rest of the worlds launch sites that launch over ocean, and even then only once they have cleared shipping or evacuated islands.

If we treat every life with the utmost respect, remembering that everyone is a fellow human, with a head full of dreams and a heart that breaks in all the same places as our own, then it’s fairly obvious that space flight shouldn’t endanger the lives of innocent people. It’s one thing to be an astronaut fully aware of the risks you are taking, and another to be a civilian who might just be cooking for the family while trying to tell some dad joke, when the world comes crashing down around you.

So I thought I’d give a rundown on some of these disasters that don’t involve astronauts but workers and the public. Some are just incredible and very frightening.

So first up

The First Man: Max Valier a brilliant young scientist, famous for setting up the world first space society in Germany the VfR. With Hermann Oberth's help, he wrote a layman’s book about space travel, based on Oberths landmark book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space). Der Vorstoß in den Weltenraum (The Advance into Space) would go on to be a smash hit in the 20’s He would write articles in the vane of Musk’s ideas 100 years later. Mars and Point to point travel for example in titles such as like "Berlin to New York in One Hour" and "A Daring Trip to Mars".

He developed a liquid-fueled rocket and then test drive an Opel Rocket Car, the first liquid rocket car. An interesting footnote is that Vauxhall is the UK brand version of Opel, and the British interplanetary society. that based itself on the VfR, is in Vauxhall!

On May the 17th 1930 Max became the first person to die from modern space endeavours, when a piece of the recoil motor of his latest engine, blew out, slicing his jugular vein, leaving his two coworkers uninjured, but one must suspect deeply traumatised.

The legend of Max lives on in astronomy clubs and technical institutes around Europe.

A few more accidents happened in the following years in Germany and Italy at rocket manufacturing sites.

Second up

Werner Von Braun, would take the work of Max Vallier even further, and 75 years ago would develop his V2 rocket. Unfortunately, the booster kept landing on populated parts of London, The first on 8th September 1944, tearing a crater 10m across, 1mile from the podcast studio, at Staveley Road, Chiswick, killing 63-year-old Mrs Ada Harrison, 3-year-old Rosemary Clarke, and Sapper Bernard Browning and injuring 22 more. The rockets kept landing on other UK and European cities, the death toll rising to 2724 in the UK alone. (there is an interactive map of landing zones on google) I am sitting very near a landing site as a write this.

But perhaps the more terrifying aspect of Van Brauns reign of death was the human cost in creating these forerunners of all modern rockets. It is estimated that over 20,000 people lost their lives in the development of the V2, and to make matters even worse, many were slaves, dragged from the squalor of the concentration camps, a reminder of the dangers of dehumanisation. That’s 6 people sacrificed per V2 made. Let’s hope this kind of horror can never be revisited.

Werner Von Braun despite all this would go on to become the most influential person in the US space race and would build the rocket that would take man to the moon.


The Nedelin catastrophe.

Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin was a Soviet military commander and Hero of the Soviet Union for his service during the Second World War. In 1959, and in some ways as influential as VonBraun in the Space Race. Nedelin was promoted to Chief Marshal of the Artillery and concluded that the rockets that Korolev was making for space travel could be used to deliver nuclear weapons creating the worlds first ICBMs, the R-7, but it wasn’t a good ICBM but it was really good at launching Sputnik, and the rest is history. But one year later.

24th October 1960. - A new ICBM was being prototyped, the R-16, over 30 m long, 3.0 m in diameter and 141 tons of megadeath machine. The rocket was fueled with the hypergolic pair of Hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, very similar in fact to the recent Long March 3B hiccup, a horrible cancerous concoction. Nedelin assured all his workers that the thing was safe and, to prove the point, sat upfront. But he had been rushing to meet the 7th November celebrations of the bolshevik revolution. A short circuit caused the second-stage engine to fire, detonating the first stage fuel tanks directly below, People near the rocket were instantly incinerated; those farther away were burned to death or poisoned. personnel had ran to the perimeter, but were trapped inside the security fence and then engulfed in the fireball of burning fuel. The explosion incinerated Nedelin, also the USSR's top missile-guidance .

designer, and over 70 other officers and engineers. Others died later of burns or poisoning.

Missile designer Mikhail Yangel had survived, although burned, only because he had left to smoke a cigarette behind a bunker

The repercussions of this incident can’t be underestimated, Khrushchev also ordered Leonid Brezhnev to head an investigation commission, many faults were found but Brezhnev insisted no one is punished as the guilty had already been killed. But the delay caused Khrushchev to base his missiles in Cuba, which could have become the mother of all rocket disasters. Yangel the hapless smoker, was forced to give up challenging Korolev for the right to lead the soviet space race, who knows what may have been there.

A news release stated that Nedelin had died "in a plane crash but the Italian press reported on 8 December 1960, Marshal Nedelin and 100 people had been killed in a rocket explosion., then in 1965, The Guardian reported details of the missile accident, then 1976 in the New Scientist.

16 April 1989, that the Soviet Union finally came clean in Ogoniok

Incredibly exactly 3 years after the first, on 24th October 1963 at the same location, another ICBM would explode because of a short circuit killing 8 people. BLACK DAY - Russia has never ever launched on this day since.

Delta Disaster

America joins the rocket disaster club in 1964

The third upper stage of a Delta rocket joined to the Orbiting Solar Observatory satellite in the spin test facility building at Cape Kennedy. Eleven workers were in the room when a spark of static electricity ignites the 205 kg (452 lb) of solid fuel, Sidney Dagle, 29; Lot D. Gabel, 51, and NASA’s John Fassett, 30, was severely burned and later died of their injuries. Eight others were injured but survived.

Mail Rocket Deliver only Death

Gerhard Zucker - A crazy German Rocket scientist first came to public notice in 1931, when he began to work on the problem of transporting mail by a rocket. In 1933 he performed several experiments in Germany. In 1934, he came to the UK, where he attempted to interest the British government in his rocket, but a failed rocket demonstration for British Royal Mail saw him deported to back Germany, where he was promptly arrested on suspicion of cooperating with the British. After the war, he returned to his crazy rocket mail idea. stroke Furniture dealing, and at a rocket demonstration on May 7, 1964 on the Hasselkopf Mountain near Braunlage he managed to kill three people with flying debris.

This accident led to a ban on civilian rocket research in West Germany, ending the rocket experiments of the Hermann Oberth Society) and others ...doh. In the 1970s Gerhard Zucker once again began launching mail rockets.

Zucker produced the postal stamps for a May 1936 exhibit in New York City. The stamps were never used until Canadian Wilfred Ashley McIsaac launched them 75 years later on October 31, 2011, in Ontario

Russians continue to have some safety concerns

On 26 June 1973, a Kosmos 3M exploded on the pad at Plesetsk during a propellant loading accident, killing nine people.

Then in March 1980, there was the Plesetsk launch pad disaster an explosion of a Vostok-2M rocket carrying a Tselina-D satellite during fueling again at Plesetsk two hours and fifteen minutes before the intended launch. 44 people were killed on-site and four more soon died in the hospital from burns. Leaving another 87 injured, 43 seriously. The accident was initially blamed on a worker, but another close call revealed a design flaw of the filter using explosive lead solder. Again it was covered up till 1989, and they even called the launch a success.

Japan has its casualty next 1991

Young Engineer Arihiro Kanaya, 23, was conducting a high-pressure endurance test on a pipe used in the first stage rocket engine of the H-2 (H-II) launch vehicle when it exploded. A 14 cm (5.5 in) thick door in the testing room to fell on Kanaya and fractured his skull, killing him.

The Long March horror show begins.1995

A long march 2E veers of course killing at least 6 people, but worse was to come

Intelsat 708 built by the Space Systems/Loral f was destroyed on 15 February 1996 when the Long March 3B rocket failed at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China. The rocket veered off course and struck a nearby village, killing at least six people, although this is likely the military personnel, not villagers. The village that used to exist near the launch facility has mysteriously vanished, and eyewitnesses saw many destroyed and flattened buildings. Some say that hundreds perished, but this seems unlikely, but one thing is probable, it was a lot more than 6. This disaster had huge ramifications. The American companies that had been involved in this got a huge slap on the wrist for sharing satellite secrets, and the long march rockets were suddenly a lot better and safer as a result. This led to the ban. no U.S.-origin content, regardless of significance, regardless of whether it’s incorporated into a foreign-made item, can go to China.

Intelsat 708 contained sophisticated communications and encryption technology. Members of the Loral security team braved the toxic environment around the crash site to recover sensitive components, returning with complaints of bulging eyes and severe headaches requiring oxygen therapy. They were initially reported by the Defense Department monitor to have succeeded in recovering "the [satellite's] encryption-decryption equipment."[7] It later became clear that the most sensitive FAC-3R circuit boards were not recovered, but, "...were mounted near the hydrazine propellant tanks and most likely were destroyed in the explosion... Because the FAC-3R boards on Intelsat 708 were uniquely keyed, the National Security Agency remains convinced that there is no risk to other satellite systems, now or in the future, resulting from having not recovering the FAC-3R boards from the PRC

Poor Brazil join the club

The 2003 Alcântara VLS accident , the Brazilian Space Agency's third attempt to launch the VLS-1 rocket, which exploded on its launch pad at the Alcântara Launch Center, killing 21 people. A huge setback, that destroyed the 2 satellites on board, the launch facility and more importantly the important scientist and engineers of the Brazilian space program.

Lots more incidents

3 people died testing the spaceship 2 rockets back in 2007

Lot’s of people have died in the shuttle era, many falling to their death, but on the very first shuttle 3 workers were killed by Anoxia, this has also happened with Ariane 5

The roof collapsed killing 8 people and destroying the Buran.

The Pepcon disaster of 1988, solid rocket propellant factory blew up killing 2 and injuring 372,

And remember on an early show we reported on debris from the launch of ms-06 caused a wildfire which killed Yuri Khatyushin, who was employed to recover rocket debris. Vyacheslav Tyts was injured and died a few days afterward in hospital


Ariane 5 launched two large satellites Tuesday after some delays, with the uber photographers clicking away. Inmarsat GX5 and TIBA-1, the later named after the ancient Egyptian capital and the Egyptian government's first satellite. The 250th Ariane rocket on it’s 40th annivesary year, making it about 1 rocket every 2 months.

ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle put 15 satellites into orbit also. The primary payload was Cartosat-3, an Indian high-resolution remote sensing satellites. Also 12 Dove cubesats for Planet and Meshbed, a communications testbed cubesat developed by Analytical Space Incorporated and MITRE Corporation

A local government in England has approved funding for a spaceport for Virgin Orbit. By a nearly two-to-one vote, the Cornwall Council approved spending £10.3 million for infrastructure improvements to Cornwall Airport Newquay to support operations there by Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne air-launch system. The meeting was disrupted by protestors who believe the project will contribute to climate change, despite a commission finding no evidence it would have an impact on Cornwall's carbon footprint.

Hi tech TV studio for the ISS - Jaxa want to develop a broadcast studio in its Kibo module. Sky Perfect JSAT and Bascule, a digital content developer, will help in the endevour through 2022, include VR tech and super high resolution live broadcasts

ESA’s Council at Ministerial Level, Space19+, has concluded in Seville, Spain, with the endorsement of the most ambitious plan to date for the future of ESA and the whole European space sector. The meeting brought together ministers with responsibility for space activities in Europe, along with Canada and observers from the EU.

  • It will allow the first gravitational wave detector in space, LISA, to fly alongside the black hole mission Athena and enable fundamental advances in our understanding of the basic physics of the Universe.

  • Continued commitment to the International Space Station until 2030

  • vital transportation and habitation modules for the Gateway, the first space station to orbit the Moon.

  • ESA's astronauts recruited in 2009 will continue to receive flight assignments until all of them have been to space for a second time, and we will also begin the process of recruiting a new class to continue European exploration in low Earth orbit and beyond.

  • European astronauts will fly to the Moon for the first time.

  • Member States have confirmed European support for a ground-breaking Mars Sample Return mission, in cooperation with NASA.

  • ESA Ministers have secured a smooth transition to the next generation of launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega-C, and have given the green light to Space Rider, ESA’s new reusable spaceship

  • fully flexible satellite systems to be integrated with 5G networks, as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like ‘network in the sky’

  • ESA’s world-leading position in Earth observation will be strengthened with the arrival of 11 new missions, in particular addressing topics linked to climate change, Arctic and Africa.

  • adoption of Space Safety as a new basic pillar of ESA’s activities.

  • removal of dangerous debris and plans for automation of space traffic control

  • early warnings such as asteroids and solar flares.

  • The Hera mission marks a joint collaboration with NASA to test asteroid deflection capabilities


100 Things to Know About Space Hardcover – 1 Apr 2016

by Alex Frith

A fun and informative book packed with 100 fascinating things to know about space, from how to escape a black hole to why astronauts learn wilderness survival skills. With bright, infographic-style illustrations, detailed facts on every page, a glossary and index, and internet links to specially selected websites for more information.


Chris Lintott is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, where he is also a research fellow at New College. As Principal Investigator of the Zooniverse, he leads a team who run the world's most successful citizen science projects, allowing more than a million people to discover planets, transcribe ancient papyri, or explore the Serengeti. For this work he has received awards from the Royal Society, American Astronomical Society and Institute of Physics amongst others. A passionate advocate of the public understanding of science, he is best known as co-presenter of the BBC's long running Sky at Night program and the author, with Queen guitarist Brian May and Sir Patrick Moore of two books (Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe (Carlton Books, 2007) and The Cosmic Tourist (Carlton Books, 2012)),



To be a mother or an astronaut, Eva Green plays an accomplished career woman who is being trained for a lengthy mission, Proxima, to an international space station on Mars.

Sapce fact

The Defense Intelligence Agency spent $22 million on a program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program instituted by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to study invisibility cloaking, warp drives and more, explains

Steven Aftergood

90 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page