MOSCOW — The Soviets lifted the veil Sunday on the worst disaster of their space program with a magazine article that blamed a 1960 launch-pad explosion on the race to catch up with the Americans.
The weekly magazine Ogonyok said program workers flouted safety rules in their haste to develop the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-16.
The article came as the Soviet Union was reeling from setbacks in its space program and some citizens were calling for cutbacks in research funds.
The Tass news agency said Saturday that Soviet scientists have abandoned efforts to re-establish contact with an unmanned probe sent to Mars, meaning they have lost touch with both Phobos spacecraft, launched at a cost of $480 million.
Sunday's Ogonyok article said the 1960 accident incinerated victims on the launch pad, including the director of the rocket program, Chief Artillery Marshal Mitrofan I. Nedelin.
The magazine said "a significant number" of people died in the explosion and fireball at the secret launch pad at Tura-Tam near the Aral Sea.
"A stream of fire burst out of the rocket, inundating everything around it," a survivor recalled, according to Ogonyok. "People tried to escape by running to the covered area where cars and other equipment were, but the road literally melted in front of them, blocking the escape route."
Accounts of the disaster Oct. 24, 1960, have circulated abroad, but Ogonyok's report was the first in the official Soviet media.
Ogonyok said the launch of the R-16 was postponed because of an electrical defect in the engine that was causing a fuel leak.
Hatches were removed and welding work undertaken on the fully fueled rocket, Ogonyok added, calling the move "one of the gravest violations of safety precautions."
Late the next day, the R-16's launch was scheduled within 30 minutes, the magazine said. But workers were still installing an electrical distributor, which somehow gave a command to ignite the rocket's second stage, the magazine said. The flames from the ignition burned through the fuel tanks of the first stage, touching off the fire and explosion.