The rocket launching site of Baikonur in Central Asia was at the heart of the Soviet Union’s space program. Located on the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan the vast facility covered at its peak an area of over 10,000 sq km (4,130 sq mi). Baikonur was also an important test site for missiles during the Cold War and has witnessed well over 400 launches. Many of the landmark events in the space race began there, including the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin in April 1961.
The achievement of getting the first person into space represented a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. What the Russians kept quiet about, however, was the terrible explosion that occurred at Baikonur just six months previously. Only since the fall of the Soviet Union has anything like a full picture emerged of an incident which remains the worst single accident in the history of rocket science.
The R-16 was a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile the Russians had been developing. In October 1960 a prototype was being prepared for a test launch at Baikonur under the personal supervisions of Marshal Nedelin, head of Soviet Rocket Forces. Wishing to impress the Soviet top brass, Nedelin put huge pressure on the scientists and engineers to have the launch ready for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Inevitably this meant overlooking safety procedures; so that when the rocket was being fuelled some 150 personnel remained on site instead of evacuating the area. As electrical repairs were being carried out, the second stage engine accidentally ignited; its exhaust ripped through the fuel tank on the first stage, producing a massive explosion which was reportedly seen 50 km (30 mi) away.
When: October 24 1960
Where: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Death toll: At least 120 people were killed in the explosion, including Marshal Nedelin himself. Some sources put the death toll as high as 200.
You should know: in an effort to conceal its true location from the west, the Soviet Union deliberately named the launch site after a mining town that was in fact 320 km (200 mi) away.