Little Bits of History

Nedelin Catastrophe

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 25, 2010

R-16 intercontinental ballistic rocket ready for launch.

October 24, 1960: An R-16 intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] explodes on the launch pad at the USSR’s Baikonur Cosmodrome space facility. The R-16 was being tested, and a prototype was on the launchpad. During the test-flight launch, the second stage misfired and 165 military personnel, engineers, and technicians were killed, including Strategic Rocket Forces Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, the commander of the R-16 project. His death was covered up at the time and it was said that he died in a plane crash.

The bodies that could be identified were shipped home from the central-Asian launch site for private burial. Many more bodies were burned beyond recognition. All other remains were placed into one casket and buried in the rocket workers’ town of Leninsk. With a total black out of information concerning the disaster, the families were left to cope on their own. The world was presented with the fallacy of a perfectly run Soviet rocket program. The first successful launch of the ICBM was on February 2, 1961.

On October 23, the rocket was on the launch pad with hypergolic UDMH-nitric acid fuel loaded. The fuel was highly corrosive and toxic. While getting the rocket ready, the pyrotechnic membranes on the first stage of the rocket were accidentally blown. This meant that the rocket had to be fired within two days or the fuel would need to be drained and the engine rebuilt. It was decided to fire the rocket the next day and arrangements were further hurried along.

Preparations were vast and many procedures were being carried out simultaneously. Nedelin was impatient with the delays. A Programmable Current Distributor [PDC] was left in the post-launch position rather than the pre-launch setting where it should have been. This error resulted in the early firing of the second stage engine and the conflagration that followed.

“The thorns which I have reap‘d are of the tree I planted; they have torn me, and I bleed.” – Lord Byron

”A danger foreseen is half avoided.” – Thomas Fuller

“One’s incompetence is a difficult fact to accept.” – Terry M. Townsend

“The men who try to do something and fail are infinitely better than those who try nothing and succeed.” – Lloyd Jones

Also on this day in 1260, Notre Dame Cathedral was dedicated.