A Brief History
On May 4, 1988, one of those spectacular disasters that can be associated with a space program gone wrong occurred at Pacific Engineering and Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON), a chemical plant only 10 miles from Las Vegas. A massive fireball and series of explosions caused over $100 million in damage and took 2 lives, while injuring another 372. The PEPCON Disaster joins many other space and rocket related disasters that have happened while still on Mother Earth.
The plant was one of 2 plants in the US that produced an oxidizer for solid fuel rockets called ammonium perchlorate (“AP”), fuel used in the booster rockets of the Space Shuttle program and in some nuclear weapons missiles. Coincidentally, the only other producer of ammonium perchlorate is the Kerr-McGee company, located frighteningly near to PEOCON, only a mile and a half away! The PEPCON plant also produced other rocket fuel ingredients and had a large (16 inch diameter) high pressure (300 psi) natural gas pipe running through the facility. The plant did not store ammonium perchlorate for government use at the site, but did hold private corporation stocks in plastic and aluminum bins and barrels made of plastic and steel, including product during production and prior to shipping. A considerable mass of 4500 tons of the volatile stuff was located at the plant at the time of the disaster. While a marshmallow factory was a mere 500 feet from the PEPCON plant, and a working gravel pit was only 3000 feet away, the nearest houses were at least 1.75 miles away.
Authorities from different agencies that investigated the incident did not clearly identify the cause of the fire and explosions, and in fact have disagreed about the likely causes of the disaster. Bickering between government agencies and company inspectors hindered a concerted investigation. In any case, the point of origin seems to have been a part of the plant where the chemicals being produced are dried, with the time of origin around 11:30 to 11:40 am local time. Some welding of the structure was taking place at the time the fire started, but it is unknown if that welding started the fire or made it worse. The fiberglass portions of the structure easily caught fire, and flammable chemical residue lying about also fed the flames. Some investigators believe the welding had nothing to do with causing or enhancing the fire.
The fire spread quickly to plastic 55 gallon drums of ammonium perchlorate stored along the outside of the drying building. While employees fought the fire inside the building, the drums outside started exploding somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes after the fire started. With the explosions and the rapid spread of the fire, employees wisely began to flee the scene. The fire spread to other buildings and involved larger storage bins, resulting in more fire and more explosions. Windy conditions contributed to the spread of the fire.
Either because of the fire and explosions or perhaps due to leaks that had occurred prior to the incident, the natural gas line became involved in feeding the conflagration. A total of 7 major explosions took place during the incident, leaving a crater 15 feet deep and 200 feet across. The largest 2 explosions actually registered on the seismic Richter scale (that detects earthquakes), registering 3.5 and 3.0 respectively. The larger of those explosions was estimated at a yield of 1.0 kilotons of TNT. (The Hiroshima atom bomb was about 15 kilotons.) Most of the ammonium perchlorate on hand was either consumed in the flames or exploded.
Some of the theories about how the fire started included the welding that had taken place shortly before the fire, employees smoking, sparking or overheating electrical equipment, or some sort of friction related sparking that may have ignited flammable gasses.
Most of us have seen spectacular video of rockets blowing up or burning on the launch pad, but sometimes space exploration related disasters happen far from the launch pad, as in the PEPCON Disaster. Sometimes, the disasters can even take lives, such as the 3 astronauts that burned up in an Apollo capsule (Apollo 1) while undergoing training on the ground in 1967. What other notable ground based space related disasters can you think of?
Question for students (and subscribers): Is the space program worth the tremendous cost? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bergaust, Eric. Murder on Pad 34: The Shocking Story of the Apollo Disaster–and Why It May Happen Again! Putnam Publishing, 1968.
Reed, JW. Analysis of the accidental explosion at Pepcon, Henderson, Nevada, May 4, 1988. PN, 1988.
The featured image in this article, a screen shot of a famous home video taken of the 1988 PEPCON industrial accident in Henderson, Nevada, is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1978 and March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice, and its copyright was not subsequently registered with the U.S. Copyright Office within 5 years.