Soyuz TMA-9: Yes, this guy is close, but not *that* close.

January 30th, 2009
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This image was taken of the Soyuz TMA-9 launch in 2007 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The image has gotten a good deal of attention and is a featured image on Wikimedia Commons. One thing that makes this image especially unique is the man in the foreground watching the launch of the Soyuz rocket.

I’ve alwasy been curious as to how far the individual watching the launch is from the pad. It can be very difficult to acurately judge distances in photographs which have been taken with a zoom or telephoto lens, especially when there is not a continuous ground surface to provide for perspective between items of varying differences. The lack of scale can create a forced perspective illusion which makes the man appear closer to the pad than he really is.

Still, the observer is clearly not all that far from the pad. It appears that the light from the launch is reflected from the ground around him, and the Bainkonour Cosmodrome is on very flat ground, with only a few small rises, making it unlikely that he is much higher in elevation than the launch.

So just how far is this guy?

I managed to track down and contact the photographer of the image, Bill Ingalls. Mr. Ingalls was kind enough to get back to me and told me that the image was taken from just under one statute mile from the launch pad and that the man in the foreground is roughly two thirds of a mile from the pad. (For the rest of the world, that’s just about one kilometer.)

This is extremely close by NASA standards. When the Space Shuttle launches, the vicinity around the launch pad is completely evacuated. The closest members of general public can get to a launch is about six and a half miles, viewing the launch from the NASA causeway. Tickets are required and sell out quickly. The absolute closest any unprotected observers are allowed to get is the Press Site Clock and Flag Pole, which is located near the Vehicle Assembly Building, about three miles from the launch pad area. However, only a very limited number of observers and reporters are ever allowed this close.

Even launches of much smaller ELV rockets have similar restrictions on how close anyone can get to the actual vehicle launch pad. On occasion, USAF launches may include personnel located much closer to the pad, but they are located in highly protected blockhouses or control bunkers.


This entry was posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 1:09 pm and is filed under Good Science, Misc, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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30 Responses to “Soyuz TMA-9: Yes, this guy is close, but not *that* close.”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    Just a klick away was he? Talk about a whole body rush!


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  2. 2
    Q Says:

    You couldn’t really do that with any kind of a rocket with solid boosters on it. I don’t know if it would kill you, but the exhaust from them is really pretty bad stuff that would at least make you cough pretty hard. The Soyuz burns kerosene with O2 so it is pretty clean.


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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

    The shuttle SRB’s and most other solid rockets use Ammonium Perchlorate Composite Propellant. It’s the standard for solid fueled rocket use in most modern rocket applications. It is composed of Ammonium perchlorate oxidizer as well as aluminum fuel along with iron, epoxy and some other bonding agents.

    It does produce some somewhat nasty stuff when it burns. It produces atomized aluminum oxide, chlorine, hydrogen chloride and that can quickly react to produce hydrochloric acid.

    I’ve stood down wind from a JATO/RATO take off at an air show on a couple of occasions. I believe that the standard rocket bottles used are fueled by a similar material. If not identical, I’m at least pretty sure that they’re aluminum and ammonium perchlorate based.

    The exhaust has a very strong and nasty smell. It’s the kind of thing that leaves a burning feeling in your sinuses. It’s something I’d expect to be choking on if it were less dispersed. Of course, these are much much smaller than a big solid rocket booster so I would not be surprised if being anywhere near the ignition of a solid rocket booster would leave you, at best, gasping and coughing.


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  4. 4
    An Actual Scientist Says:

    Amazing. It looks like the observer is just standing in a field and could walk even closer if he wanted. I don’t know that for sure, but compared to the rocket launches in the US, there would not be a person in a field like that without a large perimeter and security detail keeping everyone in line and back a good distance from the launch. I guess they do things differently in Russia. I guess that’s why Russia is able to lick us on the cost per launch vehicle.


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  5. 5
    G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996 Says:

    Who would dare go that close? A congenitally deaf person, perhaps.


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  6. 6
    DTRGT Says:

    Heh. If not deaf to begin with they probably would be not too long afterward. I wonder how close you could theoretically get before getting in trouble. The area does not look tightly controlled.


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  7. 7
    Jason Says:

    Couldn’t you approximate his distance by making a guess about his height (say 6ft) and knowing the height of the rocket ?

    It wouldn’t be exact, but still a usable approximation.

    It is an aweseom looking photo, but when I first saw it I was struck by how little the rocket was. Heh :)


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  8. 8
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Jason said:

    Couldn’t you approximate his distance by making a guess about his height (say 6ft) and knowing the height of the rocket ?

    It wouldn’t be exact, but still a usable approximation.

    It is an aweseom looking photo, but when I first saw it I was struck by how little the rocket was. Heh :)

    I guess you could try to do that, although given the distance from the photographer the height of the guy could make a big difference in the final distance. He could be anywhere from around 5′ to 6′ 2″ Also, he’s standing with his legs a little apart and the leaning slightly to the side. Even worse, if you look at the full sized image it’s clear that his feet are not visible. He is standing in grass of unknown height. So the height of the visible figure could vary wildly.

    Add to that the fact that you don’t know the relative altitude of the rocket, the photographer and the foreground subject and that makes it even worse.

    Anyways, I guess you could try that approach and see how well you do. I don’t really feel like looking up the height of the Soyuz rocket and going through the calculations.


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  9. 9
    gman Says:

    I dont think you can figure out the absolute distances from the photo unless you know more about the shot (ie, what the focal length of the lens is, maybe a few other details). You can, however, figure the relative distances. From my quick measurements (ruler against monitor) and using a 5’10″ height for the man and a 50 meter height for the rocket, I get the man standing 23% of the distance from the camera to the rocket. That is without accounting for the effects mentioned above.


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  10. 10
    LogicGhost Says:

            gman said:

    I dont think you can figure out the absolute distances from the photo unless you know more about the shot (ie, what the focal length of the lens is, maybe a few other details). You can, however, figure the relative distances. From my quick measurements (ruler against monitor) and using a 5’10″ height for the man and a 50 meter height for the rocket, I get the man standing 23% of the distance from the camera to the rocket. That is without accounting for the effects mentioned above.

    If the distance of the cameraman was under one mile and the man was around .66 miles then that’s somewhat close. It’s still a lot of error, but for something rough and not knowing his real size that’s pretty good.


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  11. 11
    Calli Arcale Says:

    According to Astronautix.com, the modern manned variant of the Soyuz rocket has a length of 46.10 meters. It did not specify whether or not that includes the escape tower, which is not standard to the rocket but is specific to manned launches. (The same rocket is used for Progress, which is unmanned and thus has no need of an escape tower.) Indeed, I’m not sure whether that figure includes the Soyuz spacecraft itself, housed in a protective fairing on top of the rocket, or if that just goes up to the top of the second stage. At any rate, that should give an idea of how *big* the rocket actually is. It just looks small in this picture due to forced perspective.

    Space Illustrated, in its final issue, had a fascinating article about the “rocket mafia” — Kazakhs who work in organized parties to try to be the first to reach spent stages after a launch. Whoever gets there first gets dibs on the scrap metal. It included a picture of a spent strap-on booster, about to be chopped up for scrap, and with the citizens and their trucks nearby, it looked quite a bit bigger than I’d expected. (There are four roughly conical strap-on boosters on each Soyuz rocket; you can see two of them in the picture above.)


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  12. 12
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Calli Arcale said:

    According to Astronautix.com, the modern manned variant of the Soyuz rocket has a length of 46.10 meters. It did not specify whether or not that includes the escape tower, which is not standard to the rocket but is specific to manned launches. (The same rocket is used for Progress, which is unmanned and thus has no need of an escape tower.)

    Yeah, it seems that the launch escape system is only used on manned launches, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell. I always wondered why it’s not put on unmanned payloads. I realize it would increase the mass slightly, although it usually is jettisoned after the first stage, so not by that much in the whole mission.

    But consider that some payloads, like interplanetary probes represent several billion dollars worth of expenditure plus the fact that they contain things like plutonium-238, which is in such short supply it takes about two years to get enough together for a single RTG, it seems like it would be worthwhile to have a contingency plan for a launch failure so that at least the payload can be recovered.


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  13. 13
    Calli Arcale Says:

    There are two reasons to omit the escape tower for unmanned launches. One: it cuts into payload, which is actually pretty important. Two: it isn’t going to save the payload anyway, since the payload has no ability to land safely. A Progress is still gonna smash into the ground at upwards of 200 Gs if an LES pulls it off the rocket. So there really isn’t much point.

    Regarding RTGs, the ones built for space applications are well-nigh indestructible, and should survive most launch accidents and be at least theoretically recoverable anyway.


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  14. 14
    DV82XL Says:

            Calli Arcale said:

    Regarding RTGs, the ones built for space applications are well-nigh indestructible, and should survive most launch accidents and be at least theoretically recoverable anyway.

    Don’t you know? They are libel to blow up like an a-bomb, and spread deadly radiation over millions of acres. [/sarcasm]


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  15. 15
    Calli Arcale Says:

    Or turn Jupiter into a star. ;-)

    The Stop Cassini! types freak out about RTGs, but they’ve been *proven* capable of withstanding tremendous forces. The one aboard Aquarius (Apollo 13 LM) reentered at incredibly high velocity (translunar speed) and survived the reentry intact, despite the LM burning up over the Pacific Ocean. It’s at the bottom of the Tonga Trench now, and periodic checks by the US government have shown that the cask is still intact.


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  16. 16
    G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan until ~1996 Says:

            Calli Arcale said:

    Or turn Jupiter into a star. ;-)

    The Stop Cassini! types freak out about RTGs, but they’ve been *proven* capable of withstanding tremendous forces. The one aboard Aquarius (Apollo 13 LM) reentered at incredibly high velocity (translunar speed) and survived the reentry intact, despite the LM burning up over the Pacific Ocean. It’s at the bottom of the Tonga Trench now, and periodic checks by the US government have shown that the cask is still intact.

    Do you have a link where the US government reports on these periodic checks? How are they done?

    — G.R.L. Cowan, (How fire can be tamed)


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  17. 17
    Calli Arcale Says:

    No, I’m afraid I don’t know the details. All I know is that they’ve taken water samples in the area to look for characteristic traces of plutonium. I do not know how recently; for all I know, it could’ve been 25 years ago that they last checked.


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  18. 18
    G.R.L. Cowan, hydrogen-to-boron convert Says:

    That squares with what I’ve read: no evidence of leakage.

    But that is entirely consistent with what likely happened: total leakage. Striking atmosphere at 11 km/s, a craft never meant to strike it at all must have broken up pretty small, with the RTG itself breaking into multiple pieces, one of them the actual 238-Pu capsule. Dense, and designed for robustness, this would make its own narrow tunnel through the air and strike water still going several km/s.

    Vaporizing plutonium dioxide must take about the same energy as vaporizing UO2, which takes 620 kJ/mol, 2.3 MJ/kg. The kinetic energy of its fall from the moon was near 60 MJ/kg. Not much of that would have to be left for the hit from the sea surface to put a shock wave through it that would leave vapour behind.

    (In an earlier discussion, someone said Oh, but it was clad in iridium. Anyone see a problem with that?)

    The million curies or so of 238-PuO2 would condense as tektites. Emitting lots of alpha particles but very few penetrating rays, these could not be detected from the air, and they’d settle to the bottom.

    If no-one saw the splash, there would be no way of finding this cloud of settling grit. Only the tiniest fraction of it would dissolve in the water it would contact on its way to the bottom — certainly much less than 100 curies. If 100 curies did dissolve, they would never be detectable against the billion background curies of alpha-decay by dissolved uranium-238 and the other billion from its daughter uranium-234.

    (How fire can be domesticated)


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  19. 19
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Calli Arcale said:

    There are two reasons to omit the escape tower for unmanned launches. One: it cuts into payload, which is actually pretty important. Two: it isn’t going to save the payload anyway, since the payload has no ability to land safely. A Progress is still gonna smash into the ground at upwards of 200 Gs if an LES pulls it off the rocket. So there really isn’t much point.

    Regarding RTGs, the ones built for space applications are well-nigh indestructible, and should survive most launch accidents and be at least theoretically recoverable anyway.

    Yeah, I suppose that if you actually wanted the LES to be useful then it would have to also have parachutes of large enough size to get the payload down safely and the payload would have to be stowed in a way that was fairly durable for the landing, potentially into sea water. That would certainly add to the payload by quite a bit, probably a good thousand pounds or so.

    I guess it would depend on the circumstances, however, whether or not that might be viable to add to the launch. Adding more payload does not necessarily increase the cost of the launch, IF and only if, there remains unused payload capacity in the final launch configuration. For example, an Atlas-V without the additional boosters has a basic payload capacity of 10,300 Kg to low earth orbit. If you have a payload that is riding a dedicated launcher and has a total mass of 9,200 KG, then it does not necessarily increase cost to have another 500 Kg… of course, there could be a need to recalibrate the launch parameters and such. The Atlas commonly carries a tank of a couple of hundred pounds of water which can be filled or drained to trim the weight precicely if needed anyway.

    I *think* that the big mass constraints on deep space probes are more related to the apogee kick stage or earth departure modes than to the ground launch system. So it is possible that there would be circumstances where the mass would be acceptable.

    However, it would still cost more to add the LES and the chutes and possibly airbags and such things. It might still be worth it in an epecially expensive probe – not something like Progress or something. That spacecraft is not super expensive, but it might be worthwhile for something like the five billion dollar Cassini mission.

    I know it adds expense, but so does car insurance. I still wouldn’t drive without it. So it might be worth it.

    Oh, also, there was at least one example of an RTG being recovered after a rocket exploded. The material was reused, but they were lucky in that case. It might not be possible if it ended up burried under several feet of mud in an unknown location off the cost of Cape Canaveral.


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  20. 20
    DV82XL Says:

            G.R.L. Cowan, hydrogen-to-boron convert said:

    But that is entirely consistent with what likely happened: total leakage. Striking atmosphere at 11 km/s, a craft never meant to strike it at all must have broken up pretty small, with the RTG itself breaking into multiple pieces, one of them the actual 238-Pu capsule. Dense, and designed for robustness, this would make its own narrow tunnel through the air and strike water still going several km/s.

    It is my understanding that large RTGs are encased in their own aerodynamic re-entry shell, designed to protect the entire assembly against the heat of moving at those speeds through the earth’s atmosphere, and the fuel assemblies as well are encapsulated in their own heat shielding. The fuel pellets are also ceramic themselves, thus the likelihood of vaporization.

    In the case of the Apollo 13 Lunar Module, there was also a good deal of breaking from the ablating superstructure that would have slowed down the SNAP-27 before it was directly in contact with the atmosphere. Give these facts it is not inconceivable that the device would survive intact to the surface.


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  21. 21
    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    It is my understanding that large RTGs are encased in their own aerodynamic re-entry shell, designed to protect the entire assembly against the heat of moving at those speeds through the earth’s atmosphere, and the fuel assemblies as well are encapsulated in their own heat shielding. The fuel pellets are also ceramic themselves, thus the likelihood of vaporization.

    In the case of the Apollo 13 Lunar Module, there was also a good deal of breaking from the ablating superstructure that would have slowed down the SNAP-27 before it was directly in contact with the atmosphere. Give these facts it is not inconceivable that the device would survive intact to the surface.

    The RTG used for Apollo missions was a SNAP-27 A unit which was transported to the moon on the outside of the Lunar Module. It was contained inside a cask that was mounted to the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package) pallet. When the astronauts set up the ALSEP they would remove the RTG from the cask and set it up connected to the experiment modules and the control unit.

    The cask was designed to survive a launch pad explosion or an abort and reentry. In addition to the cask, the RTG itself was hermetically sealed and the fuel pellets were encased and designed not to be soluable.

    Also, as you mention, the fact that it was attached to the lunar module is likely to slow it down a bit. Sure, the LM broke apart, but it would have meant that it would be falling through the atmosphere like a tumbling, fragmenting mass and not like a bullet or something.

    here are some pictures:

    http://history.nasa.gov/EP-95/p21c.htm
    http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/rtg.cask.detail.jpg

    There is some more info here: http://history.nasa.gov/EP-95/surface.htm#21

    The above page is about Apollo-16, but the RTG unit and basic power bus setup was identical.


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  22. 22
    G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    In the case of the Apollo 13 Lunar Module, there was also a good deal of breaking from the ablating superstructure that would have slowed down the SNAP-27 before it was directly in contact with the atmosphere. Give these facts it is not inconceivable that the device would survive intact to the surface.

    That’s more or less what I said: the part of the thing that was densest and toughest was intact until it struck the water surface. After that, not so much. Or anyway, that is the expectation.

    “A good deal of breaking from the ablating superstructure” — usually the “brake”/”break” difficulty is inconsequential, not so here.

    — G.R.L. Cowan (How fire can be tamed)


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  23. 23
    DV82XL Says:

            G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan ’til ~1996 said:

    “A good deal of breaking from the ablating superstructure” — usually the “brake”/”break” difficulty is inconsequential, not so here.

    I’m not making excuses – I should pay attention – but I have to tell you that English language homonyms are one of the most frustrating things for those of us that learned it as a second tongue. Not that French is without these things, in fact many many conjugations of verbs are pronounced the same but are spelled in radically different ways, but (to me) the constructions follow a certain logic. This is not the case for English in which they seemingly appear at random.

    I have often wished that my spell-check had a feature wherein homonyms would be flagged and present one with the options listed with a short definition.

    My apologies for this off-topic aside.


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  24. 24
    drbuzz0 Says:

    English is my first language and the only language I’m completely fluent in and you’ll notice I still have not completely mastered spelling in it. There are too many words that are not phonetically spelled and thus have to be remembered explicitly. I find the idea of memorizing such enormous volumes of explicit data to be daunting.


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  25. 25
    Calli Arcale Says:

    Regarding the English language and it’s seemingly haphazard approach to spelling, one major factor is it’s mixed ancestry:

    “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” — James D. Nicoll

    I guess it would depend on the circumstances, however, whether or not that might be viable to add to the launch. Adding more payload does not necessarily increase the cost of the launch, IF and only if, there remains unused payload capacity in the final launch configuration. For example, an Atlas-V without the additional boosters has a basic payload capacity of 10,300 Kg to low earth orbit. If you have a payload that is riding a dedicated launcher and has a total mass of 9,200 KG, then it does not necessarily increase cost to have another 500 Kg… of course, there could be a need to recalibrate the launch parameters and such. The Atlas commonly carries a tank of a couple of hundred pounds of water which can be filled or drained to trim the weight precicely if needed anyway.

    It is very rare that there is significant spare mass, especially in a scientific probe like Cassini. If you were the PI for a probe, would you rather spend your payload margin on a recovery system that you are almost certainly not going to use, or additional scientific instruments? Or additional propellant for your spacecraft’s own propulsion system? Or larger solar arrays/batteries/RTG? And that’s even ignoring the budgetary concerns. So, while it would be neat to be able to recover your payload, in general the focus is more on avoiding the accident than on surviving it.


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  26. 26
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Calli Arcale said:

    Regarding the English language and it’s seemingly haphazard approach to spelling, one major factor is it’s mixed ancestry:

    “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” — James D. Nicoll

    LIES LIES! That’s what the evolutionists teach you! They want you to believe that English evolved from other languages. They want you to believe that it evolved from a Germanic base that was influenced by Anglo and Norse languages and added Latin influences.

    These are the same liars who will tell you that French developed from Romance roots and the Frankish dialects. They will tell you that Spanish and Italian and Romanian can all be traced directly back to a Latin basis and that most European languages can be considere primarily Germanic, Romance or Slavic with additional Celtic and Saxon and Normal elements.

    These are nothing but an attempt to try to lead you away from the Bible and the TRUTH of God’s WORD!

    Languages did not evolve! That’s ludicrous. Does German sound like English? No of course not! It’s about as close to English as a monkey is to a human being.

    The fact is that languages were created by the Lord. He saw that the people of Babel were working to create a tower that would reach heaven and the Lord did not want this, for men were not fit to rise to the level of God. The tower plans were the embodiment of pride and discourse from God.

    But he couldn’t just knock down the tower or anything, because that would not have provided an explanation for something that people didn’t understand – like why their neighbors spoke differently.

    So, instead, he cast a magic spell that made everyone talk differently and then sent them to opposite corners of the world.

    And that is where all languages come from!

    (Kidding.. I don’t believe that. Some people do though)


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  27. 27
    Armando Rozario Says:

    Bill Ingalls’ photo is stupendous!

    Yes, “Man is awestruck at the grandeur of the scene!”

    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 25th. of February 2010.


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  28. 28
    TerraHertz Says:

    Awestruck?
    Actually he’s chatting on his cellphone.
    “What? What?! … Sorry, I can’t hear you, someone just launched a bloody rocket.”


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  29. 29
    Armando Rozario Says:

    TerraHertz,

    I enjoyed reading your humourous comment. A Brazilian website posted a report on the Soyuz programme, and a Russian Forum posted my thread on this issue. The layout on the photos and text are very well presented…..the text is in Portuguese…..you may translate it from PORTUGUESE into ENGLISH. You will enjoy reading E.M.Pinto’s text on this subject:

    http://engforum.pravda.ru/showthread.php?p=3071030

    Armando Rozário ¹²³ Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 26th. of February 2010.


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  30. 30
    Depleted Cranium » Blog Archive » Dramatic Crash of Russian Proton-M Rocket Says:

    [...] In an article from a couple of years ago, it was noted that the Russian space program seems to allow…. While there were launch personnel close to the launch pad, they were in armored control houses and no injuries were reported. [...]


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