The Nedelin Catastrophe
Date: Saturday, April 26 @ 19:25:17 MDT
The Nedelin disaster was a launch pad accident that occurred at Baikonur Cosmodrome during the development of the Soviet R-16 ICBM. The prototype missile exploded on the launch pad, killing over 100 military personnel, including the Strategic Rocket Forces Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin in the world's worst rocketry disaster. |Read More|
In 1960, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev anxiously awaited another playing card in the Cold War with the US. Designed by experienced rocket scientist Mikhail Yangel, the R-16 ICBM (NATO reporting name SS-7 Saddler) was nearing completion. Yangel and Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin intended to produce a military and political coup, by completing a successful launch before the November 7th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
By October 23rd, the prototype was ready on the launch pad and was only awaiting a few final tests before launch. The rocket had already been fuelled with Devil's Venom, a mixture of dimethylhydrazine and nitric acid. This type of hypergolic fuel is extremely hazardous, being both corrosive and highly toxic.
Despite extensive safety procedures, the pyrotechnic membranes on the first stage fuel lines were accidentally damaged, allowing fuel to move to the combustion chamber. While this was not immediately dangerous, the nitric acid fuel component was so corrosive that it could not remain in the fuel lines for more than a few days without irreparably damaging the rocket.
The rocket team were faced with a dilemma. They had to either launch the next day, or completely drain the rocket and rebuild the engine - delaying the program by several weeks. In light of the usual repercussions of failure in the USSR at that time, the decision was made to launch. In the drive for more propaganda victories in the wake of Sputnik, many safety regulations and procedures were completely ignored.
Nedlein and members of the State Commission gathered to view the launch. When another delay was announced, Nedelin impatiently demanded to be driven to the launch pad to oversee the preparations of the rocket himself. The Marshall's numerous subordinates dutifully followed. When the commission members arrived, a chair was ordered for Nedelin, who sat about approximately 30 meters from the rocket.
During the course of the pre-launch operations, a switch known as a PCD had been set to its post-launch position. Later, noticing that it had not been returned to zero position, an engineer switched it back. However, the rocket's onboard batteries had since been connected, therefore returning the switch to it's the first setting actually fired the second stage of the rocket engine.
At 18:45 local time and around 30 minutes before the scheduled launch, the second stage engine came to life. Instantly, the roaring flame of the engine burst through the fuel tank of the first stage directly below,
initiating an enormous explosion of the fully-fuelled rocket. In seconds, a giant fireball, up to 120 meters in diameter engulfed launch pad 41, and those on it.
Some were instantly incinerated, while many others died running from the tidal wave of burning fuel. Those attempting to escape by climbing the fence surrounding the pad were hampered by fresh tar, which melted under their feet. Others jumped into the wells dug around the launch complex, only to suffocate from the poisonous propellant fumes released by the inferno. Technicians located on the upper levels of the gantry were engulfed in fire and burst into flame like candles blazing in mid-air. Temperatures at the centre of the fire exceeded 3,000 degrees centigrade, and flashes of light were visible up to 50 kilometres away.
Film cameras around the launch pad set to automatically record the launch, were triggered by the ignition of the second stage, capturing these horrific scenes for posterity.
Nedelin and 125 others were killed by the inferno or splashed with corrosive chemicals. Yangel however
survived. He had left the area for a smoke break where he was discussing the possibility of abandoning the launch with his chief technicians.
Upon learning the news, Khrushchev directed Leonid Brezhnev to go to Tyuratam to investigate. When the
commission landed in at the site, the missile's first and second stages were still lying twisted together on
the ground. The bodies of victims, most of them burned beyond recognition, were taken to a special shelter for identification. Those that could be identified were shipped home to their families for burial. The fused remains of those who could not, were then swept from the scorched concrete, placed in a single coffin, and lowered into a grave in a park in the rocket workers' city of Leninsk.
Complete secrecy was immediately imposed on the events, and news was released stating that Nedelin had died in a plane crash. As far as the rest of the world knew, the Soviets' efforts in space continued to move from one crowning success to another. It was only after the fall of communism in 1990 that the true scope of the disaster finally became public.
Today, the site is marked by a small monument containing the names of those who perished, and a map
illustrating the layout of the old launch complex. Apparently the monument is still visited by Russian Federal Space Agency officials before any manned launch.