PLESETSK COSMODROME, U.S.S.R. -- The Soviet Union, opening its secret northern spaceport to foreign journalists for the first time, launched a communications satellite and revealed a major disaster nine years ago that killed 50 space workers.
The accident, the second-worst known space disaster ever in terms of lives lost, came to light Wednesday when Western reporters saw a memorial for the fallen technicians in the main square of Mirny, the space center's bedroom community 500 miles north of Moscow.
Anatoli Lapshin, a spokesman for the space center, said the Soyuz rocket was being filled with kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel on March 18, 1980, when an explosion tore through the launch pad, killing 45 workers instantly. Five more people died later from their burns.
A similar fueling explosion at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, also revealed for the first time Wednesday, left nine space workers dead on June 26, 1973.
The bodies of those killed in both disasters rest at the monument under red granite slabs marked by pictures of the dead. The monument, topped by a granite space rocket, overlooks Lake Plesetskaya, which is framed by a forest of birches and firs.
Fifty-four space workers died in a huge fuel explosion Oct. 24, 1960, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Central Asia.
'Those were complete disasters,' Oleinik said. 'You know, when the first automobile was tested there were also accidents. Also when the first plane was tested, there were accidents. When man tries to master something new, it is inevitable there will be accidents on the road to mastering a new technique.
'It is improper to compare death tolls. A tragedy is a tragedy. It is unpleasant for any country, for any branch of industry testing something new for the first time.'
In Houston, James Oberg, a Soviet space expert, said, 'My information is 54 people were killed in the Nedelin accident. And there were three others killed in 1968 (at Baikonur). It was during a launch.'
Set among the peat bogs, wild birches and lakes in ancient northern Russia, Pletensk is the busiest spaceport in the world having sent more than 1,150 communications and weather satellites into orbits around Earth's poles. Satellites launched from Baikonur are fired into equatorial orbits.
But until Wednesday, no Western journalists had visited this secret launching center inaugurated in 1957, the year Sputnik soared aloft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the south to begin the space age.
Oleinik attributed the decision to open this cosmodrome to heavy criticism from the new Soviet parliament of space spending, the need to make the space program pay its own way and glasnost.
'It is now the time of glasnost,' he said in clipped phrases. 'It is necessary to make known what has happened, and now everybody is interested in how space is being mastered and what scientific results are being obtained. Therefore the decision was taken to display our exemplary work.'
Moments later, at 5:38 p.m., in the first part of a double-header launch, a rust-colored, four-stage Soyuz rocket roared aloft carrying a Molniya satellite that will be used to relay television programs to remote parts of the Soviet Union.
At 3 a.m. Thursday a unique two-satellite payload was to be launched, a mother satellite and a smaller spacecraft that will study Earth's ionosphere.
The liquid-fueled Soyuz rocket, workhorse of the Soviet rocket fleet, took 530 seconds, about 9 minutes, to drop the television satellite into an elliptical orbit with a low point of 2,485 miles and a high point of 24,233 miles.
In such an orbit, the satellite will slowly pass over the Soviet Union to relay television broadcasts across the nation, answering critics who charge the Soviet space program has brought few benefits to ordinary people.