The Nedelin Disaster

Posted: October 25, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

The site as it looked in ten years ago

From the here-to-for unfamiliar France24.


If a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it happen, most of us would agree it still makes a noise.

Similarly, if a disaster happened in the USSR fifty years ago that few know of, it’s still a disaster.  Like the Nedelin disaster at the Baikonur Cosmosdrome (also known as Tyuratam) at the ominously named Site 41.

Russia on Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the world’s most horrific but long-classified space catastrophe when 126 people were burned alive during a launch pad accident at the Baikonur cosmodrome.

The Soviet Union, locked in a space race with the United States, was developing an intercontinental ballistic missile known as the R-16, and on October 24, 1960 was scheduled to launch a prototype rocket when it exploded on the launch pad.

In the West, the tragedy is referred to as the Nedelin disaster, after the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces Mitrofan Nedelin, who oversaw the rocket programme and died along with designers and testers.

How did it all happen?  From Wikipedia:

In the course of the pre-launching operations, a Programmable Current Distributor (PCD) was left set to the post-launch setting; it should have been re-set to the pre-launch setting — from which it would issue timed electrical commands to the rocket to rupture the appropriate pyrotechnic membranes and coordinate the engine firing and stage separation. Later, an engineer noticed the PCD had not been re-set to zero and so he did it. However, the rocket’s on-board batteries had been powered and connected, and the safety blocks had been disabled in the course of testing. The re-setting of the PCD opened the pyrotechnic valves and fired the second stage engines of the rocket.

The second stage engines fired immediately. The flames cut into the first-stage fuel tanks below and they exploded. Automatically-activated cinema cameras set around the launching pad filmed the explosion. People near the rocket were instantly incinerated; those farther away were burned to death or poisoned by the resulting toxic gases. Andrei Sakharov described many details—as soon as the engines were fired, most of the personnel there ran to the perimeter but were trapped in it by the security fence and then engulfed in the fireball of burning fuel.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is today leased by the Russians from Kazakhstan.  The event was declassified by the Soviets (yes, that’s what they were when it was declassified) in 1989.  Tragically, three years later–to the day–a different launch pad fire killed another seven Soviets.

Check the video out for some representation of what it might have looked like.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s