Has Anyone On The Ground Ever Been Injured From a Botched Rocket Launch?

Inspired by this video. Has a failed rocket launch ever resulted in injuries to people on the ground (or in a vessel at sea or whatever)? I’m referring specifically to rockets used in space exploration, not military mishaps.

Yup a few times. One of the more famous ones (technically a ICBM but there wasn’t much difference back in the day, and it did happen in a cosmodrome)

Apollo 1 had a cabin fire that killed the 3 crewman. But technically this was a launch test and not a launch.

Challenger was still basically in the launch phase or maybe just the earliest portion of its flight. As I recall, it was barely over a minute into the flight and the external tanks were still attached.

Dang it! Ninja’d - but yes, Nedelin is best known.

Wikipedia (of course) has a list of rocket accidents, some of which apply to your criteria. See here.

China has had a few. Their main launch facility is located such that their rockets travel over land/populated areas for a significant part of their flight path, rather than over over the ocean or desert. At least one failed launch back in the 90’s when they were getting started with their Long March rockets crashed into a village and killed around 60 people. I’m sure there have been other incidents.

Didn’t the N1 blow up in the pad with several casualties? or did it just blow up without anyone being injured? (Except the Soviet Moon Landing plans)

More details here. Definitely seems to meet criteria of the OP:

Challenger was 73 seconds into flight when hot gas jetting out of a field joint of the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) cut through an attachment strut on the tank, causing the vehicle to become structurally unsound, aerodynamically unstable and resulting in the breakup of the External Tank(ET) and Orbiter Vehicle (OV), although the SRBs detached and continued to function, tumbling end over end, until destructed by the Range Safety Officer. Nobody on the ‘ground’ was injured (the vehicle was actually over water due east of Titusville) but obviously the crew died, likely at impact of the OV flight deck and main cabin onto the ocean.

I don’t think anyone on the ground has been killed during the launch of an American space launch vehicle, although there have been numerous injuries and deaths in testing, and several near misses. In general, the Air/Space Force range safety organizations, the 45th Space Wing and 30th Space Wing collectively known as the Eastern Western Range (EWR) take public safety very seriously and have strict requirements on both demonstrated reliability of the flight destruct systems and flight corridors with very low Expectation of Casualty (EoC), which often results in severe constraints near the beginning of launch and launch delays when a boat or aircraft strays into flight corridor. (Range Safety and design/test/link margin/reliability requirements are codified in RCC-319, RCC-321, AFSPCMAN 91-710, and other pertinent range and command standards.).

Even with all that, a vehicle that goes out of control before the RSO can send the destruct order, or one where Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) doesn’t respond correctly can result in severe hazard to public safety. Certain commercial space flight companies which do not operate out of EWR have been far more caviler about ground safety which has resulted in several near misses and damage to public and private property. The Soviets have had a number of deaths, most notably in the previously referenced Nedelin Disaster, and there are allegations of various deaths in the Chinese program but I don’t know enough details to address that topic knowledgeably. Since these are authoritarian regimes they don’t really have to deal with the kind of liability issues.


Mea Culpa, I actually misinterpreted the OP. My post doesn’t answer the question asked. I apologize.

There have been a few mishaps for smaller rockets. Our microgravity branch at Glenn Research Center also launched sounding rockets like the Black Brant from the Wallops Island Test Range in Virginia. Some early missiles in the NACA era used ground power cords that had to be unplugged just before launch. SOP was to climb a short ladder on the launch fixture and yank the cord then proceed with the final countdown. One guy pulled the cord and something happened to fire the missile while he as still on the ladder. Oops. I don’t think he was killed. The solution? From then on they used a 10 foot pole to pull the cord. Things were different back then.

The o.p. did specify “rockets used in space exploration” which I took to mean orbital space launch vehicles but the higher number Black Brant rockets definitely exceed the Kármán line and Scout was actually used to launch a bunch of small satellites. There were definitely some accidents and casualties with early suborbital and military systems, although none that I’m aware of that caused unintended death to bystanders on the ground due to a flight failure. The Advanced Ballistic Reentry System (ABRES) program did accidentally fly a Minuteman I-based test rocket into Mexico, fortunately not resulting in any casualties.


There was an accident on an aircraft carrier where a missile launched down the flight deck. Far from orbital but damn, what a way to ruin your day.

I’m pretty sure, according to some documentary I’ve seen, dozens of people were killed, including a large chunk of their top…men. Which was a large reason the project went no further since all their scientists got blowed up.

Are you talking about the Nedelin catastrophe? I never heard of it until I read this thread, and am honestly surprised something like this hasn’t happened more times.

This one almost vaporized a good section of Arkansas. There’s also a bomb encased in a swamp somewhere in the Carolinas.

I might get be conflating that with whatever it is that I’m thinking about. Lemme do a research.

Nuclear warheads don’t work that way.

I recall some story about Robert Goddard’s assistant(s) being injured in some of his experiments. The ignition phase seemed to be the problem area, required manual opening of fuel valves and holding a torch or something to ignite liquid fuel rockets. I don’t think anybody died. I doubt they were paid much if they were not just unpaid students, but we all should appreciate their sacrifices in pursuit of science.

Technically, Nedelin shouldn’t count, since it happened during some pre-launch tests and not during the launch.

Another one that doesn’t count, but just barely:

Progress MS-06
An ISS resupply mission, debris from the launch caused a wildfire that killed Yuri Khatyushin, who was employed to recover rocket debris. Vyacheslav Tyts was injured and died a few days afterward in hospital.[152]

A person on the ground indeed died. But the launch wasn’t botched; it was totally successful.

There aren’t too many that meet the OP’s criteria exactly, though the Chinese ones certainly count.

And in the meantime, I found THIS story (from another source). It’s a long story but worth a read.

This is his official obituary from the funeral home.

And he was even on StoryCorps. 3:31 in length.