This is the second of two articles recounting the Nedelin Disaster. Read Part 1 here.
They worked all night. One bundle of wires that was removed and replaced had all their coverings melted as a result of a short circuit from the first stage’s pyrotechnic cartridge; the wires were in direct contact with each other. Propulsion engineers still weren’t sure whether the second stage blowout discs had blown, since the monitors had been distracted by the first stage; they attempted to verify the situation by smell.
The morning of October 24 arrived. Nedelin was still seated by the launch pad, a position that had become if anything, even riskier. NII-4 chief General A. I. Sokolov had the temerity to suggest to Nedelin that it might be safer to move away from the fueled, poorly controlled missile; Nedelin called him a coward. The offended Sokolov left directly for Moscow, a move that almost certainly saved his life.
The evening of October 24: It was time, once again, to blow the second stage discs. No longer trusting the electrical system which was clearly riddled with faults, engineers undertook to detonate each disc manually, powered by a battery carried up the service ladder.
T-30 minutes: The service platforms and access ladders were swarming with people moving both up and down, scurrying to correct last minute glitches that had popped up all over the system, while the countdown continue, inexorably. A lucky few individuals decided to take a cigarette break in the bunker smoking room. One of them was Yangel. Another was OKB-586 lead designer Khachaturyan who had just finished manually blowing the explosive discs. This is Khachaturyan’s account of what happened next, as recorded by Chertok:
“When I went down into the bunker I found the always calm and collected Matrenin [the missile crew chief] in somewhat of an agitated state, which Aleksandr Sergeyevich explained saying that Grigoryants was putting tremendous pressure on him and always rushing. Continuing our conversation, we stopped by the smoking room and had a cigarette. I started to reassure him, uttering a bunch of platitudes. And suddenly at that moment we heard incomprehensible chaotic, violent noises and explosions. Matrenin and I ran into the control room. Senior Lieutenant V. N. Taran, the preparation and launch control panel operator, and engineers from our design bureau whose responsibilities included monitoring the pre-launch circuit setup, were there at that time. They looked horrible: ashen and wild-eyed. I dashed to the periscope and saw our missile burning on the launch pad. This hideous conflagration was accompanied by the explosions of the solid-fuel braking engines and the high-pressure tanks.”
An ill-advised flip of a switch whose circuitry was poorly design had ignited the second stage, still on the launch pad. Its flames in turn ignited the fully fueled first stage, creating a massive fireball. The lucky ones, like Nedelin, died instantly. A video camera had been set up to record the launch; instead it recorded figures stumbling off the launch pad engulfed in flames. The fire reached 3,000°C, melting tar on the road and trapping those who tried to run. Those who didn’t bake or burn died of toxic gas inhalation. A few managed to run to the edge of the launch site, where they got tangled in the barbed wire fence intended to demarcate the safety line.
100 civilian and military personnel had been engaged in work on the R-16. An additional 150 spectators had come to watch the momentous event from up close. All but a handful of them died that day.
Below, a History Channel program on the Nedelin Disaster, including original footage of the incident:
Three Decades of Silence
It was decades before a full account of the Nedelin Catastrophe came out. Despite at least 150 people killed (the real number remains unknown, as the official death toll was either never counted or revealed), the catastrophe was completely covered up. An apparently victorious nation happily launched the first man to space just six months later. Relatives were told their loved one had died in a plane crash – only later did these relatives discover just how many “plane crashes” there had been on October 24. Bodies of military service members were buried in a mass grave on the launch site; it was not until 1963 that they were given a memorial marker. The bodies of deceased civilians were sent home to their families. Today, Site 41 at Baikonour Cosmodrome remains as an abandoned lot, with a small monument listing the names of 54 people’s remains could not be identified.
It would be nice to conclude that the horrific outcome of this incident was a radical change in the Soviet approach to launch vehicle safety, but history has shown otherwise. It was not until four decades later that this account became public – and Marshall Nedelin is still seen as a Russian hero due to his World War II service, a reputation unsullied by his subsequent errors. Even those who were aware of all the facts at the time seemed anxious to forget them as soon as possible. The investigative commission, after declining to punish anyone for the catastrophe perhaps rightly concluding that anyone still alive had been punished enough, went on to demand cleanup of the launch site within 10-15 days and a fresh launch attempt within one month. In fact, the next launch attempt was three months later – and it failed too. Luckily no one died on the second time around.
Why relive the past, especially a past so distant, from a time of radically different pressures and under a government that no longer exists? As Chertok says in a footnote to his account of these events: “Teaching a course called ‘large rocket-space systems’ to students at MFTI [Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology] and MGTU [Moscow State Technical University], in the unit on ‘reliability and safety,’ I utilize the account of the events of October 1960 as a very instructive example. To one degree or another, the lessons of the past have remained relevant for almost half a century.”
Let us hope that we have gained some wisdom from this particular past in the dangers of disregarding safety procedures, cutting short testing, and allowing time pressures to drive technical decisions. And let us remind ourselves of these lessons from time to time, just in case.
Chertok, Boris. Rockets and People Vol. II: Creating a Rocket Industry. Ed. Assif Siddiqi. The NASA History Series.
Aerospaceweb: Ask a Rocket Scientist. http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/spacecraft/q0179.shtml.