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Nedelin catastrophe

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Nedelin catastrophe
The explosion
Native name Катастрофа на космодроме Байконур
English nameThe Catastrophe at Baikonur Cosmodrome
Date24 October 1960 (1960-10-24)
Time18:45
VenueBaikonur Cosmodrome
LocationKazakh SSR, USSR
Coordinates45°58′32″N 63°39′35″E / 45.97542°N 63.65982°E / 45.97542; 63.65982
Also known asNedelin disaster
TypeRocket explosion
CauseShort circuit in the rocket
Organised bySoviet Strategic Missile Troops
Casualties
54–300 deaths (exact number not known)

The Nedelin catastrophe or Nedelin disaster, known in Russia as the Catastrophe at Baikonur Cosmodrome (Russian: Катастрофа на Байконуре, romanizedKatastrofa na Baikonure), was a launch pad accident that occurred on 24 October 1960 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan. As a prototype of the R-16 intercontinental ballistic missile was being prepared for a test flight, an explosion occurred when the second stage engine ignited accidentally, killing an unknown number of military and technical personnel working on the preparations. Despite the magnitude of the disaster, information was suppressed for many years and the Soviet government did not acknowledge the event until 1989. With more than 54 casualties, it is the deadliest disaster in space exploration history. The catastrophe is named for the Chief Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin, who was the head of the R-16 development program and perished in the explosion.

Launch preparations

On 23 October 1960, the prototype R-16 intercontinental ballistic missile had been installed on launching pad 41 (Russian: стартовая позиция 41) awaiting final tests before launch. The missile was over 30 metres (98 ft) long, 3.0 metres (9.8 ft) in diameter and had a launch weight of 141 tons. The rocket was fueled with the hypergolic pair of UDMH as fuel and a saturated solution of N
2
O
4
in nitric acid as the oxidizer—nicknamed "Devil's venom"—which was used because of the high boiling temperatures and hence storability of the fuel and oxidizer, despite being extremely corrosive and toxic. These risks were accounted for in the safety requirements of the launch procedures, but Nedelin's insistence on achieving a test launch ahead of the 7 November 1960 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in extreme schedule pressure, in a context of substantial emerging engineering difficulties.[1][2] Ultimately pre-launch tests began to overlap with launch preparations.[2]

Accident

A short circuit in the replaced main sequencer caused the second-stage engine to fire while being tested before launch. This detonated the first stage fuel tanks directly below, causing an explosion which destroyed the missile. Before seeking refuge, the camera operator remotely activated automatic cameras set around the launching pad that filmed the explosion in detail.

People near the rocket were instantly incinerated; those farther away were burned to death or poisoned by the toxic fuel component vapors. Andrei Sakharov described many details: as soon as the engine fired, most of the personnel there ran to the perimeter, but were trapped inside the security fence and then engulfed in the fireball of burning fuel. The explosion incinerated or asphyxiated Nedelin, a top aide, the USSR's top missile-guidance designer, and over 70 other officers and engineers. Still others died later of burns or poisoning.[3][2][4][1] Missile designer Mikhail Yangel survived only because he had left to smoke a cigarette behind a bunker a few hundred metres away, but nonetheless suffered burn injuries.[3][5]

Casualties

The exact death toll of the explosion is not known. The first Western reporting of the accident via the Italian Continentale News Agency in December 1960 said that 100 people were killed,[6] while The Guardian reported in 1965, citing information from spy Oleg Penkovsky who had passed information to the West, that as many as 300 had died.[7] The Soviet Union said only that a "significant number" had died when it first acknowledged the incident in a 1989 Ogoniok article,[8] but later in the year, the government put the number of dead at 54.[9] The most recent estimated death toll, released by Roscosmos on the 50th anniversary of the accident and originating with agency engineer Boris Chertok, was that 126 people had died, but the agency qualified the number by saying that the actual number could be anywhere from 60 to 150 dead.[10]

Aftermath

An honour guard at the tomb for those killed during the test R-16 on 24 October 1960, the city of Baikonur

Complete secrecy was immediately imposed on the events of 24 October 1960 by Nikita Khrushchev. A news release stated that Nedelin had died in a plane crash and the families of the other engineers were advised to say their loved ones had died of the same cause. Khrushchev also ordered Leonid Brezhnev to head an investigation commission and go to the site.[11] Among other things, the commission found that many more people were present on the launch pad than should have been—most were supposed to be safely offsite in bunkers.[11]

When Brezhnev arrived at the firing range on 25 October 1960, he said: "Comrades! We do not intend to put anyone on trial; we are going to investigate the causes and take actions to recover from the disaster and continue operations".[12] Despite this, I. A. Doroshenko was held accountable for the event.[13]

Afterwards, when Nikita Khrushchev asked Yangel, "But why have you remained alive?", Yangel answered in a trembling voice, "Walked away for a smoke. It's all my fault". Yangel later suffered a heart attack and was off work for months.[14][15]

After the committee presented its report, the R-16 program resumed in January 1961 with first successful flight on 2 February 1961.[16] The delay to the R-16 spurred the USSR toward the development of more effective ICBMs and sparked Khrushchev's decision to install intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba. Before the disaster Yangel had ambitions to challenge Sergei Korolev as leader of the Manned Space program, but he was directed to focus on the R-16.[citation needed]

A memorial to the victims of the test was erected in the first half of the 1960s in the Park of Baikonur and is still visited by RKA officials before any manned launch.[17]

Another fatal accident, with the R-9 missile, occurred at Baikonur exactly three years after the Nedelin catastrophe, causing 24 October to be referred to as Baikonur's "Black Day." No launches have been attempted on that date at Baikonur ever since.[18]

Official acknowledgment

A news release stated that Nedelin had died "in a plane crash while on an undisclosed mission".[19][20] The Italian news agency Continentale first reported on 8 December 1960, from undisclosed sources, that Marshal Nedelin and 100 people had been killed in a rocket explosion.[21] The Guardian reported on 16 October 1965 that captured spy Oleg Penkovsky had confirmed details of the missile accident,[7] and exiled scientist and Soviet dissident Zhores Medvedev provided further details in 1976 in the British weekly magazine New Scientist.[22][23] However, it was not until 16 April 1989 that the Soviet Union acknowledged the events, with a report appearing in the weekly newsmagazine Ogoniok.[8][24]

See also

General bibliography

  • Chertok, Boris; Rockets and People: Fili-Podlipki-Tyuratam; Moscow, 1996; published by Mashinostroyeniye Publishing House (in Russian)
  • Chertok, Boris; Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry, 2006; published by NASA ISBN 0-16-076672-9
  • Eliseev, V. I. M. We grew hearts in Baikonur. OAO MPK in 2018; ISBN 978-5-8493-0415-1
  • Harford, James; Korolev – How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; New York, 1997; pp. 119–120 ISBN 0-471-14853-9
  • «At risk» – A. A. Toul, Kaluga, "the Golden path", 2001. ISBN 5-7111-0333-1
  • Khrushchev, Sergei; Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower; Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 2000; Translated by Shirley Benson; pp. 416–425
  • Kuznetsk, M. I. Baikonur. Korolev. Yangel. Voronezh: IPF "Voronezh" 1997; ISBN 5-89981-117-X
  • Ostashev, A. I. "Testing of rocket and space technology – the business of my life"; Korolyov, 2001. Events and facts.
  • Sheehan, Neil; A Fiery Peace in a Cold War; Random House; New York City, 2009; p. 405.

Citations

  1. ^ a b Chertok, Boris (June 2006). "Chapter 32: Catastrophes". Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry (PDF). NASA. ISBN 0-16-076672-9. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  2. ^ a b c Zak, Anatoly; et al. "Nedelin Disaster". Russian Space Web. Rockets: R16 family. Retrieved 17 February 2019.
  3. ^ a b Steven Zaloga, The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword: The Rise and Fall of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces, 1945–2000 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002) pp. 66–67
  4. ^ Yoon, Joseph N. (6 June 2004). "Nedelin Disaster". Aerospace Web. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  5. ^ Chris Gainor, Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961–1965 (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) p. 180
  6. ^ "ROCKET CITED IN DEATHS". The New York Times. 10 December 1960. Retrieved 22 October 2020.
  7. ^ a b "1960 Soviet Rocket Disaster Reported". The New York Times. 17 October 1965. Retrieved 22 October 2020.
  8. ^ a b "Soviet article reports 1960 launch blast", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 17 April 1989, p.3
  9. ^ "1980 Soviet Rocket Accident Killed 50". The New York Times. 28 September 1989. Retrieved 22 October 2020.
  10. ^ "Russia remembers horrific space accident". Sydney Morning Herald. 25 October 2010. Retrieved 22 October 2020.
  11. ^ a b Chertok, Boris (2006). Siddiqui, Asif (ed.). Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry (PDF). NASA. p. 631. ISBN 0160766729. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 April 2020. Retrieved 28 May 2020. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  12. ^ Chertok, Boris (2006). Siddiqui, Asif (ed.). Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry (PDF). NASA. p. 628. ISBN 0160766729. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 April 2020. Retrieved 28 May 2020. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  13. ^ Chertok, Boris (2006). Siddiqui, Asif (ed.). Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry (PDF). NASA. p. 629. ISBN 0160766729. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 April 2020. Retrieved 28 May 2020. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  14. ^ Первые шаги советской ракетной техники. Статьи. Наука И Техника (in Russian)
  15. ^ Chertok, Boris (2006). Siddiqui, Asif (ed.). Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry (PDF). NASA. p. 620. ISBN 0160766729. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 April 2020. Retrieved 28 May 2020. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  16. ^ Chertok, Boris (2006). Siddiqui, Asif (ed.). Rockets and People, Volume 2: Creating a Rocket Industry (PDF). NASA. p. 633. ISBN 0160766729. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 April 2020. Retrieved 28 May 2020. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  17. ^ Tsaplienko, Andriy (25 October 2005). Неделинская катастрофа (in Russian). ООО "Интерактивный Маркетинг". Retrieved 9 November 2011.
  18. ^ Pavlushchenko, Katya (23 October 2019). "Black Day of Cosmonautics". Twitter. Archived from the original on 22 October 2022. Retrieved 22 October 2022.
  19. ^ "Milestones", TIME Magazine, 7 November 1960.
  20. ^ "Chief of Rockets Killed in Soviet; Moscow Reports Death of Nedelin in Plane Crash", New York Times, 26 October 1960, p.2
  21. ^ "Rocket Cited in Deaths; Italian Agency Says Blast Killed 3 Russian Experts", New York Times, 10 December 1960, p.6
  22. ^ "Exiled Soviet Scientist Says That an Explosion of Buried Atomic Wastes in the Urals in 1958 Killed Hundreds", New York Times, 7 November 1976, p.18
  23. ^ Medvedev, Zhores (4 November 1976). "Two decades of dissidence". New Scientist. 72 (1025): 263–267.
  24. ^ Болотин (Bolotin), Александр Ю. (Alexander Yu.) (15 April 1989). "10-ая площада" [Site 10]. Огонёк (in Russian) (16): 10–14.
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