Cause and Effect

Nedelin Catastrophe


In the late 1950s, a two-prong battle in the Cold War raged in space. The world’s two great superpowers were looking at launching rockets through space to deliver earth-ending nuclear arms to their sworn enemies. Meanwhile, a more peaceful competition was also being pursued by the same two superpowers: putting a man in orbit and, eventually, on the moon.

Both pursuits had very tight timetables. Even after the Soviet Union beat the US by launching the first satellite and the first manned spacecraft, the Soviets knew that the Americans weren’t far behind. Meanwhile, the Soviet R-7 ballistic missile proved to be nearly unusable as a military weapon due to its cryogenic fuel system and the infrastructure required to fuel and maintain the rocket. It did prove to be a very reliable rocket and variants of it are still used today.

This left a gaping hole in the Soviet nuclear deterrent network. The R-16 was meant to fill that void. Designed by Mikhail Yangel with oversight from Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin, the R-16 would use more stable propellants and be flight ready in much less time than the R-7. Nedelin pushed the engineers and technicians throughout 1960. As with any new system as complicated as a rocket, there were many unforeseen technical problems that had to be addressed. However, Nedelin and Yangel wanted to demonstrate their new rocket before the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7.

This political pressure meant that engineers, designers and technicians had to rush and take shortcuts. One of those shortcuts was to install a control system that was nearly 100% manual. Part of the control system was the Programming Current Distributor (PTR) that activates various systems on the rocket. During checkout its selector switch would be cycled to various positions while the rocket was “safe” then set to a safe position for fueling operations.

Despite the issues surrounding the design and construction of the R-16, Nedelin insisted that the rocket be moved from the build-up area to the launch pad. Yangel initially resisted, but ultimately relented. Nedelin insisted that the design was robust enough that even if a system failed, they could still attempt to launch. The rocket was rolled to Site 41 on October 21 and fueling operations began. Despite safety policies that demanded all non-essential personnel leave the launch site during fueling, Nedelin set up a chair to directly oversee operations at the pad. Having such a high-ranking party member breathing over their shoulders was surely a stressor to the men working on readying the rocket for flight.

To complicate matters, as the highly flammable fuel and corrosive oxizers were pumped into the rocket’s tanks, leaks were found. Protocol was to de-fuel the rocket to repair leaks. With only days until the November 7 deadline, Nedelin insisted that the men try to fix the leaks with fuel in the rocket. Repairs were slow-going and dragged into the next day. Electrical problems were encountered that needed to be fixed, which further slowed down fueling. Nedelin, growing frustrated, continued to personally oversee operations at the pad. On October 24, Yangel and other dignitaries from Moscow arrived to check on progress. With so much brass and their entourages, technicians and engineers worked at a fever pitch to get the rocket ready for launch. Checks and repairs that should have been done in series were done simultaneously. Safety protocols were ignored.

Aftermath of the Nedelin Disaster

Aftermath of the Nedelin Catastrophe

One of the checks that had to be performed was on the PTR. At the conclusion of the check, the PTR selector switch was left in an incorrect position. The position it was left in allowed fuel to flow towards the rocket motors with only one valve preventing ignition of the second stage motors. With upwards of 250 people on the launch pad, a technician reset the PTR at 6:45 pm. Immediately, the second stage motors ignited and burned through the tanks in the first stage. Those close to the rocket were immediately consumed. Those further away wish they had been as they were burned alive by caustic fuels. Several men were able to get into underground pits, only to succumb to the poisonous vapors. Nedelin and many high ranking and technical people died. The estimated death toll is over 120.

The entire ordeal was quickly hushed. Nedelin’s family was informed that he had died in an air crash. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that official reports of the Nedelin Catastrophe were released. They showed that an investigation was held which found Nedelin and others at fault for forcing an unreasonable timetable, circumventing safety protocols, and believing in the robustness of an unproven design. However, the official response was that a personal tragedy should not stand in the way of collective success. The launch pad should be repaired and preparations to test another R-16 should be made within two weeks time. Politics trumped humanity.

Unfortunately, that collective success would be slowed drastically after the loss of so many of the R-16’s main designers. It wouldn’t be until almost six months later that an R-16 would be tested and it wouldn’t be accepted into military service until June 1963.

[Image Credits:]

  • cruisintime

    Today, Putin informed Obama that he would provide a "Missile Shield" for the Soviet interests in Syria.. The Cold War is back on.

  • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    Before this was officially declassified there was a lot of speculation. There is still crackpot stuff out there about it, like US was involved somehow, etc. Another example of how trying to keep things secret can be worse.