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Russian rocket breaks up on liftoff, threatening next space station launch

A man looks in Moscow on July 2, 2013, at a computer screen while watching a footage showing the flight of the Proton-M rocket, which veered off its trajectory and exploded today on takeoff at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty)

A Russian rocket carrying three navigational satellites broke apart in a fiery explosion seconds after liftoff Tuesday morning, the ninth failure in the country’s troubled space program in the past 30 months and the third this year.

The rocket’s dramatic disintegration leaves in doubt a scheduled launch this month of a cargo vessel carrying water and other supplies to the international space station. On Tuesday, Russian officials put a hold on launches from the leased space center at Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, while they investigate the cause of the explosion and the damage to the launch site. A spokesman for the space agency Roscosmos said it is too soon to know how long the hold will be in effect.

But the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed official in the space agency as saying that there would probably be no launches for two to three months.

The next crew change at the space station is scheduled for Sept. 25, also by way of Baikonur. The United States has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to and from the station.

Analysts here say Russia has been careful to maintain standards in its manned-spaceflight program. But unmanned launches, they say, have been plagued by obsolete design, sloppy engineering, poor training and management, and conspicuous corruption.

The rocket that exploded Tuesday, on live television, was a Proton-M, derived from a 1965 Soviet predecessor. In February, a Zenit naval-launched rocket carrying a telecommunications satellite veered into the ocean. A Defense Ministry satellite also failed this year, the Interfax news agency reported.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev demanded the names of those responsible for Tuesday’s crash. A criminal investigation also was opened. In Kazakhstan, an environmental commission was formed over fears of widespread rocket-fuel contamination at the site. A Kazakh official told Interfax that the rocket was carrying 600 tons of toxic substances.

When it hit the ground, it left a crater 150 to 200 yards across.

Interfax calculated the financial loss to Russia from the launch failure at about $140 million.

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