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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rocket Explodes Shortly After Liftoff

A Soyuz rocket carrying a research satellite malfunctioned and crashed near its launch pad in northern Russia, killing a soldier and casting doubt on whether a crew will be launched to the international space station by a modification of the same rocket later this month, officials said.

The 300-ton Soyuz-U began to veer off course moments after taking off with a Foton-M1 research satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk region at 10:20 p.m. Tuesday.

One of the first stage's four RD-107 engines malfunctioned and fell off, forcing the rocket's control system to abort the flight on the 29th second. The two-stage rocket, which was carrying tons of fuel, exploded upon hitting the ground, causing a fire and a powerful shock wave.

Ivan Marchenko, a 20-year-old servicemen in the Space Forces, was killed, according to Space Forces official Sergei Derevyashkin, who said the death "could be attributed to fate."

Marchenko was on duty at the Soyuz assembly and test complex some 1,000 meters from the launch pad when the shock wave from the exploding rocket knocked in a window frame in the building. The frame hit him in the head with a lethal blow, Derevyashkin said.

Eight others were injured in the explosion, but two of them declined to be hospitalized, he said.

The five engines of the Soyuz-U are almost identical to those of the Soyuz-FG, which is set to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 28 to deliver cosmonauts Sergei Zaletin and Yury Lonchakov and Belgian astronaut Frank de Winne to the international space station.

The Soyuz-FG's engines differ only in that they have more advanced fuel injector caps, said Vladimir Sudakov, an expert with Khimki-based Energomash, which designed but did not manufacture the engines.

Yury Bogorodsky of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center outside Moscow told Interfax that the flight could be suspended because of the crash.

No decision had been made as of Wednesday evening on whether to suspend the launch of this relatively new modification of the workhorse of Russia's launch industry, said an official at the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Soyuz-FG has been launched four times successfully, but never for manned flight.

Reached by telephone, Alexander Chechin, deputy chief of TsSKB-Progress, which manufactured the engines, said he and his colleagues' heads were "smoking" from trying to determine what could have caused the failure. He would not elaborate.

An official at the Space Forces, which run the Plesetsk launchpad, said the Soyuz-FG launch commission would have to think twice before authorizing the Oct. 28 flight.

Previously, a single crash of a launch vehicle would lead to a suspension of launches only if investigators suspected a faulty design, both the Space Forces official and the Energomash official said. A second crash in a row would lead to an automatic suspension, as was the case with the Proton in 1999.

Sudakov of Energomash, however, was more optimistic that the Oct. 28 launch would go ahead, since the Soyuz rockets that are meant for manned flight undergo more checks. He noted that there has been only one failure of a Soyuz that was carrying a crew, but even then the crew was safely ejected.

Sudakov claimed that engine failures have accounted for only one out of the 16 abortive Soyuz launches from Plesetsk.

Most of these failures, he said, were attributed to faulty assembly of the rocket and malfunctions of the vehicle's command system. All in all, there have been 426 Soyuz launches from Plesetsk, according to the Space Forces.

While awaiting the launch commission's decision, the Russian-Belgian crew continued to train at Baikonur on Wednesday.