THE FIRST TEST flight of the Soviet Union's giant N1 Moon booster ended in an explosion at T+70s on 21 February, 1969, killing 91 people on the ground near the Baikonur Cosmodrome, it has been revealed on Russian television.

Although some details of the flight have been revealed, the fatalities were not. The 100m (300ft)-high three-stage rocket was designed to send two men to the Moon, one of whom would land on the surface.

The N1 had a base diameter of 17m, weighed 2,700t and its 30 first-stage engines had a thrust of 4,260t. Another test flight, on 2 July 1969, ended in an explosion which destroyed the two N1 launch pads. Two other flights, in 1971 and 1972, also failed before the project was abandoned.

The Moon launch failure was the biggest disaster in space history, although there have been others which have come close. Fifty-one engineers were killed when a Vostok rocket exploded on the pad at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on 18 March, 1980, and 56 were killed in the "Nedelin Disaster" at Baikonur on 24 October, 1960.

Source: Flight International