Saturday, April 08, 2006


The loss of 14 astronauts in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, played out in the full glare of modern global television, is seared on our collective memory. A calamity which caused far greater loss of life remains almost unkown, the victims almost forgotten, the explosion at Tyuratam (The Nedelin disaster) in the USSR in 1960.

The early space programmes of both superpowers were inseperable from the cold war scramble to develop ICBMs. Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin were put into orbit by modified ballistic missiles, as were Explorer 1 and John Glenn for the USA.

The Soviet's workhorse booster of the day was the R 7, a modified version of which is still used today. It was originally developed as an ICBM by Sergei Korolev, the Soviet's Werner Von Braun, but its cryogenic oxygen needed complex storing and fueling systems impractical for fast military response. It found its niche as a satellite launcher and has a success rate of 97% in 1,600 launches between 1957 and 2000.

A new, more powerful launcher - the R-16 - was the brainchild of Korolev's former assistant Mikhail Yangel (left). It was built to deliver a 10 megaton warhead to New York, Boston and Washington D.C.

The R 16 would use a new, more convenient fueling system and was given top priority, overseen by Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin (right), the commander of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. The design team were pressured to produce the first R-16 as quickly as possible. Despite any number of unsolved flight control problems, Yangel reluctantly agreed to deliver the first missile to the test range at what is now the Baikonur Cosmodrome in September 1960. Both Nedelin and Yangel hoped to please Khrushchev by launching its maiden flight by the November 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The test rocket, designated LD1-3T, was moved from it's assembly building to the 'left' launch pad at 'Site 41' on October 21, where fueling began with its highly toxic and corrosive propellants. Proper safety protocols insist that all non-essential personnel evacuate the area during fueling operations but work on the rocket continued regardless of the risks.

As fueling was completed, on Saturday, the 22nd of October, the launch crew found a propellent leak of 142-145 drops per minute. Remarkably the technical management thought this acceptable as long as it was contained by the chemical unit assigned.

Once the rocket was fuelled the R-16 launch team reached the point of no return. Incredibly there was no procedure allowing the draining of propellant from the vehicle and LD1-3T could not be used for another launch attempt if the highly-corrosive propellants were drained. One eyewitness recalled Nedelin yelling that in the nuclear war there would be no chance for such things. The launch would press ahead regardless.

The propellant pumps failed on Sunday, October 23. Nedelin ordered the men to work on the rocket while the propellants were still aboard. Design and production flaws in the control panel meant an electrical signal destroyed the membranes which prevented the fuel reaching the stage 1 engines. A series of electrical faults occurred in quick succession. The rocket could last no more than two days on the launch pad now.

Black Monday

Repairs dragged on into the 24th, the scheduled launch day, prompting Nedelin and his subordinates to visit the pad "to figure out what's going on." Yangel and a number of visiting dignitaries were also present to personally direct the pre-launch operations. The presence of so many powerful figures put great stress on the workers, already under pressure to launch as soon as possible. Too many tests and other operations were conducted simultaneously, and safety procedures were neglected to save time. Neither Major General Konstantin Gerchik, Chief of the NIIP-5 test range nor Chief Grigoryants of the 2nd Test Directorate, responsible for R-16 testing, found themselves capable of enforcing the safety rules in the presence of their boss.

The most serious mistake concerned the 'Programming Current Distributor' which activated electrical systems on the rocket. Following a test, the PTR was accidentally set to the wrong position, activating the rocket's batteries and propellant lines. In his memoirs, Sergei Khrushchev quotes a witness in the command bunker overhearing someone ask: "So should I move PTR to zero?" to which someone else shouted "Go ahead." Only a single valve now prevented the self igniting propellent entering the engines and spontaneously exploding.

When the commission members arrived to the launch pad, Konstantin Gerchik was ordered to bring a chair for Nedelin, who then sat within 20 meters of the rocket, ostentatiously taking commad. His defenders praise his dedication to duty but missile programme veterans said his attitude did nothing but distract the crew and imperil safety.

As the scheduled lift off approached, members of the State Commission in charge of the project gathered on a wooden viewing terrace at IP-1B ground control station at Site 43, 800 meters from launch pad 41.

The Explosion

At 18:45, 30 minutes before the scheduled launch, as perhaps 250 people still bustled around the rocket, the second stage engine erupted without warning into life. The roaring flame burst through the stage 1 fuel tank directly below in an instant, initiating an enormous explosion of the fully-fueled rocket. A giant fireball, up to 120 meters across, engulfed the launch pad in seconds.

The lucky ones were incinerated instantly, while many died in the ensuing seconds of a living hell. Eyewitnesses described horrifying scenes of burning people running from the rocket or hanging on their safety harnesses from the access pads. Ground workers trying desperately to flee found themselves running through molten tar, unable to climb the fence which surrounded the launch pad. Others jumped into the wells dug around the launch complex, only to suffocate from the noxious propellant fumes released by the inferno.

Massive explosions rocked the launch pad for 20 seconds, the blasts heard over 20 miles away. Huge fires roared on for two hours or more.

"At the moment of the explosion I was about 30 meters from the base of the rocket. A thick stream of fire unexpectedly burst forth, covering everyone around. Part of the military contingent and testers instinctively tried to flee from the danger zone, people ran to the side of the other pad, toward the bunker...but on this route was a strip of new-laid tar, which immediately melted. Many got stuck in the hot sticky mass and became victims of the fire...The most terrible fate befell those located on the upper levels of the gantry: the people were wrapped in fire and burst into flame like candles blazing in mid-air. The temperature at the center of the fire was about 3,000 degrees. Those who had run away tried while moving to tear off their burning clothing, their coats and overalls. Alas, many did not succeed in doing this."

"...automatic cameras had been triggered along with the engines, and they recorded the scene. The men on the scaffolding dashed about in the fire and smoke; many jumped off and vanished into the flames. One man momentarily escaped from the fire but got tangled up in the barbed wire surrounding the launch pad. The next moment he too was engulfed in flames."

"Above the pad erupted a column of fire. In a daze we watched the flames burst forth again and again until all was silent...(After the fires had been extinguished,) all the bodies were in unique poses, all were without clothes or hair. It was impossible to recognize anybody. Under the light of the moon they seemed the color of ivory."

The lives of Yangel and a few other high ranking officials were spared as they had stepped into a bunker to take a break mere minutes before the explosion, but a host of top ranking officials were killed.

The huge flares were easily visible from Site 10, the main residential area, where the families of the engineers were watching and waiting for the launch. Their worst nightmare was unravelling before their eyes.

An ad hoc team of 30 soldiers battled to rescue the savagely burnt and poisoned survivors. Buses rushed the horribly maimed men to the local hospital where accompanying officials refused to divulge what kind of "secret" chemical had poisoned the patients. Only after several demands by the doctors did the military gave out the information needed to threat the victims.

Yengel had had to be restrained from rushing to the pad from the control room as his rocket ignited. That same night a message with his signature arrived at Kremlin via the special communication channel.

"during final preparations for the launch a fire took place which caused the destruction of the tanks with components of the propellant. As a result of the accident, there are casualties numbered up to 100 or more people, including fatalities -- several dozen people. Chief Marshall of Artillery Nedelin was present at the test site. Now, the search for him is going on."

The Aftermath

Krushchev ordered an investigation headed by Leonid Brezhnev, the future premier, who
arrived by plane the next morning. Brezhnev and his team found the stricken missile splayed on the pad, its ripped first and second stages still attached to each other. The bodies of victims, most burned beyond recognition, were taken to a special shelter for identification. The body of Konoplev, chief of OKB-692, was identified by its height.

Among a host of top officials lost, Lev Grishin, Deputy Chairman of State Committee for Defense Technology, who reportedly was going to catch up with Yangel for a cigarette break, died in hospital 11 days after the disaster.

Speaking to the staff at Tyuratam, Brezhnev said the commission had no intention of punishing anybody. "All guilty had been punished already,"

On a cold damp day in October, the investigation commission witnessed the funeral of the military personnel at Site 10. 84 soldiers and officers were buried in a mass grave in what is now 'Soldier's Park'. Other bodies, including civilian engineers, were shipped back to their home towns for individual burials. As the incident was shrouded in the deepest secrecy, the relatives were told to say their loved ones had died in a plane crash. Even in Tyuratam, a site closed to outsiders, a memorial at the grave would not be built for three years.

The report blamed the massive death toll on those who ignored proper safety procedures, overconfident that the untested R-16 would perform safely in extreme conditions. It set the official death toll at 90, including 74 who perished in the initial explosion, 57 of them military personnel and another 17 civilians. A further 49 were injured, and 16 dying later of their wounds. Two suffocated soldiers were found after the report was completed, raising the official toll to 92.

This undoubtably underestimates the toll, though it's uncertain by how many. Current research suggests a true total of 122 fatalities with no less than 48 victims dying in agony over subsequent weeks from burns or exposure to toxic chemicals. 84 were military officers or enlisted technicians while 38 were civilian engineers.

Though the commission recommended more testing of the control system and a re-evaluation of the pre-launch sequence, it recommended repairing the launch pad within two weeks and resuming the test program as soon as that November. The lives of Soviet engineers were not to stand in the way of an ICBM which could destroy America.

The next launch attempt, in February 1961, failed when the rocket crashed in flight. Not until June 1963 was the missile finally accepted for military service. The R-16 and improved R-16U remained in use until 1974 when it was eliminated under the terms of SALT-1.

The launch was a complete disaster but the Soviet Union had long excelled in suppressing bad news. The death of World War II hero Nedelin was officially explained as an air crash. Inevitably rumours found their way to the west but there was no publication in the official Soviet press for almost 30 years until, in 1989, Ogonyok magazine ran "Sorok Pervaya Ploshadka," (Site 41). It finally revealed that Nedelin had died in the explosion of a ballistic missile in Tyuratam along with numerous other nameless victims.

Site 41 is an empty and abandoned lot at the edge of the Baikonur Cosmodrome today. The site is marked only by a small monument containing the names of those who perished and a map illustrating the layout of the old launch complex. Elsewhere on the base is a single coffin containing the remains of those who could not be identified. A coffin bearing the remains of an unidentified victim was buried in Leninsk Park. It's now covered by a small grassy mound. It's fenced in.

Books which discuss the disaster include

Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon

Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge by Asif Siddiqi.

Photographs and information from Aerospaceweb and Russian Space Web


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