Yesterday’s Progress launch went smoothly, but unfortunately the recovery of the spent boosters did not. Russian rockets have always launched over land (the sole exception being the Soyuz rockets launched from Kourou in French Guiana, in partnership with Arianespace), and this means they drop their lower stages onto land. This has caused problems before, from property damage to at least one recorded incident of a cow being killed by falling debris, but for the most part, the spent stages are manna from heaven to the scrap dealers, as they contain valuable materials like titanium. Before the scavengers are allowed to access the stages, a team hired by Roscosmos goes in and removes any salvageable electronics and other components, and it was one of those teams that suffered a tragic loss.
The stage one drop site this week has been suffering unusually dry conditions (even for this semi-arid part of the world). This is where the distinctive conical strap-on boosters impact, and it is always cleared of personnel before the flight. But on this occasion, one of the boosters, still hot so soon after burnout, started a grass fire. The fire ultimately burned 15 km of grassland before being extinguished, but two contractors with NPO Mashinostroenia were driving along the road, heading to the scene to help fight the fire, when a sudden gust of wind blew fire right across their truck. One man was killed; the other was airlifted to a hospital with burns over 45% of his body.
It’s a sobering reminder that even when everything with the vehicle appears to go exactly right, spaceflight remains a dangerous endeavor.