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Kazakhstan: Rocket Ban Still In Place Ahead Of Scheduled Russian Launch

  • Bruce Pannier

A Russian Proton rocket preparing for launch at Baikonur (file photo) (AFP) October 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is scheduled to launch a Proton rocket into orbit with three of its GLONASS satellites from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on October 25.


But just two weeks before the planned lift-off, a Kazakh ban on Proton rocket launches remains in place and threatens to derail the mission.


The ban was imposed in September after another Russian Proton rocket exploded above Baikonur two minutes after takeoff. The mishap showered parts of central Kazakhstan with debris and toxic heptyl rocket fuel, and officials are demanding compensation for the resulting environmental damage.


Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov was expected to visit Baikonur on October 10 to announce that the ban would be lifted. But that visit was canceled, and the fate of Proton launches from Baikonur remains unclear, despite an assurance the same day by a senior Russian space official that the late-October launch would go ahead as planned.


The head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, General Anatoly Perminov, was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying that "damage" and "compensation" figures are on the way and that the GLONASS satellites will go into space as scheduled. He blamed the September crash on a damaged cable and insufficient insulation.


Compensation Sought


Russian and Kazakh disagreement over the level of compensation for the September 6 crash is the likely reason for the snag.


In 1999, when two Proton rockets exploded over Kazakhstan within a four-month period, total compensation for Kazakhstan amounted to some $400,000. Other Russian rockets of different designs have exploded or crashed in Kazakhstan since then.


Kazakhstan signaled a tougher line in compensation talks this time. The day after last month's explosion, Prime Minister Masimov indicated that negotiations would be much more complicated than before.


"We need to get ready for very serious talks with the Russian Federation because this has gone beyond all acceptable limits. There are no words to describe it, frankly speaking," Masimov said.


Reports suggest that Astana wants between $60 and $70 million. Roskosmos said today that it is working to reduce Kazakhstan's demand.


Talgat Musabaev, the head of Kazakhstan's national aerospace agency, Kazkosmos, said shortly after the September crash that no Protons could be launched until that mishap was explained.


A Proton-M rocket at Baikonur (courtesy photo)

"I had a direct telephone conversation with the head of the Russian federal space agency, General Perminov, in which we made the unambiguous decision to halt the flights of the Proton rocket and its modifications until the cause of the rocket failure has been fully established," Musabaev said.


Perminov said the Kazakh-Russian working group assessing the damage would present its findings by November.


But a spokewoman for the Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry, Nataliya Kim, on October 10 said the final amount of compensation would be announced in December.


If compensation is the sticking point, then November or December is too late for the next planned launch. The importance of the GLONASS system for Russia makes delays extremely inconvenient for the Russian military.


A space and technology website (spaceandtech.com) describes GLONASS as a positioning system "based on a constellation of active satellites [that] continuously transmit coded signals" to be received all around the globe.


It is managed by the Russian Space Forces and operated by the Coordination Scientific Information Center (KNITs) of Russia's Defense Ministry. It is the counterpart of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), which is used for anything from tracking special forces troops to providing directions to city drivers.


Environmental Damage


Just how much damage was done to Kazakhstan's environment is also unclear. Heptyl rocket fuel is extremely toxic, and contact with or ingestion of a tiny amount can kill a person.


In mid-September, Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Kim made the unexpected statement that heptyl has not been found in water samples from the area, although it had been found in earlier soil samples.


That drew a response from a former Kazakh parliamentarian and current opposition figure, Zauresh Battalova.


If the water is found to be not alright for locals to drink, [authorities] will not be able to provide clean drinking water to the whole population there, since it is too expensive," Battalova said. "It would be even more expensive if it were necessary to evacuate or relocate the population due to the situation. That's why I think the report saying that [heptyl] is in soil in the air but that it is absent in the water is just a way to escape problems and expenditures."


Karaganda Province Governor Nurlan Negmatullin said on October 10 that 32,900 hectares of farmland and pastures are so contaminated that they are useless for agricultural purposes. Negmatullin said authorities have blocked off access to the land to farmers and shepherds.


If the two countries decide to resume Proton launches, it's unclear how officials will portray that decision to the public.


But veteran politician Dos Koshim, who now heads the nongovernmental organization Nation's Future, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that he has no doubt the matter will be resolved as quietly as it has been in the past.


"Not once, not twice, not three times, but by my count there have been six times when a [Russian] rocket crashed" in Kazakhstan, Koshim said. "It's turning into a regular event. The Kazakh side regularly demands money, and Russia regularly prolongs the assessment of damage, and nobody knows in the end how much [the compensation] is, and Protons continue to be launched."


If the next launch also ends with a crash, Koshim said, Kazakhs know what to expect: "demands, prolongation, and promises. That's it! And that hurts not only the environment but the economy."


One new twist in the September rocket explosion was the Kazakh parliament's quick approval of legislation forbidding any rocket from flying over the Kazakh president.


President Nursultan Nazarbaev was reportedly traveling in the general region of the falling debris at the time of the September explosion.


(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

The Post-Soviet Environment
The skull of a male saiga antelope in Kalmykia. Saiga numbers have collapsed disastrously over the last decade. (shpilenok.com)

THE FRAGILE PLANET: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, old environmental disasters have come to light and new ones have emerged. War, poverty, and weak central-government control have led to serious environmental problems from Eastern Europe to the Russian Far East. RFE/RL has provided extensive coverage of these important issues and of efforts to cope with them.


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