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Do all launches involve self-destruct mechanisms? How do they usually work? Is it just the boosters that are required to self-destruct? In the case of the space shuttle, how about the external tank?

Are the mechanisms only manually triggerable?

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    $\begingroup$ After the latest Russian failure, I learned that Russian launchers do not include self-destruct mechanisms. $\endgroup$ – user29 Aug 1 '13 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Chris - in the USSR satellites were AFAIR fitted with self-destruct mechanism. As for the STS: Range Safety Officer monitored trajectory and pulled the trigger (manually, but with extensive ground-based computations). $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Aug 1 '13 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ Someone at SpaceX on a podcast I listened too (I.e. No actual reference), said that the range safety officer has complete control over self destruct. And they have no override. US launch ranges require range safety devices. Most other ranges do as well. Historically this may not have been entirely the case. $\endgroup$ – geoffc Aug 1 '13 at 16:42
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Let's take a survey of some of the powers that have launched something in to orbit, taken from Wikipedia. This list is in no particular order.

Bottom line, it seems like everyone but Russia has self-destruct capabilities in all of their rockets.

A few other facts. Some of the abort systems are automatic, but most require ground intervention. Essentially, they key is to get the fuel out of the rocket, preferable burnt. A small explosive device is usually sufficient, rockets are very light, and most rocket fuels are explosive in nature, a small charge in the right place will be sufficient to explode the tank.

Also, the Shuttle had 3 systems total, one for each solid rocket booster, and one for the external tank. The two solid rocket booster self destructs were used after the Challenger disaster, to prevent them from doing any damage to the ground. From the Challenger Report:

Range Safety

Television coverage of the Challenger accident vividly showed the Solid Rocket Boosters emerging from the ball of fire and smoke. The erratic and uncontrolled powered flight of such large components could have posed a potential danger to populated areas. The responsible official accordingly destroyed the Solid Rocket Boosters.

To understand how the booster rockets were destroyed, one must understand the purpose of a range safety system, its functions, and the special considerations that apply to Shuttle launches.

The Eastern Space and Missile Center operates a range safety system for all Department of Defense and NASA launch activities in the Cape Canaveral area. The primary responsibility of the range safety system, run by the U.S. Air Force, is to protect people and property from abnormal vehicle flights during first stage ascent.

To fulfill its range safety responsibilities, the Eastern Space and Missile Center staff supervises on-site launch preparations and tracks rockets and vehicles until they are far enough away from populated areas to remove any danger. When such a danger arises during the ascent stage of a launch, the vehicle may have to be destroyed to minimize harm to persons and property on the ground. Every major vehicle flown from the Cape Canaveral area has carried an explosive destruct system that could be armed and fired by the range safety officer.

Range safety procedures in launch activities from Kennedy are governed by Department of Defense and NASA documents. The primary regulatory publication is DOD Document 3200.11, Use, Management, and Operation of DOD Major Ranges and Test Facilities.

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    $\begingroup$ Part of STEREO's launch delays (besides a strike) were because of a de-certification of the batteries used in the self-destruct of the second stage. They had to get the orbital dynamics folks to verify if they could get the proper orbit using a different (heavier) battery. $\endgroup$ – Joe Aug 7 '13 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ The Russian rockets work the other way around. They have the "Emergency Engine Shutdown" system. But they also have the "Escape System". In case of a detected malfunction the "Emergency Engine Shutdown" command can be generated. But the "Escape System" can delay that command for some time, so the rocket could fly away from the launch pad. Nobody wants to build a new launch pad. For the recently failed Proton-M rocket the engine shutdown command is blocked until 42 seconds from the liftoff. $\endgroup$ – horsh Aug 7 '13 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ China didn't used to--there's a video on You-Tube of a disastrous crash of a Long March rocket that came down under power on an inhabited area. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Nov 2 '14 at 23:47

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