Nedelin catastrophe
The Nedelin catastrophe or Nedelin disaster (so-called because Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin
Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin
Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin was a Soviet military commander who served as Chief Marshal of Artillery, a position he held from May 8, 1959 until his untimely death...

 was killed) was a launch pad
Launch pad
A launch pad is the area and facilities where rockets or spacecraft lift off. A spaceport can contain one or many launch pads. A typical launch pad consists of the service and umbilical structures. The service structure provides an access platform to inspect the launch vehicle prior to launch....

 accident that occurred on 24 October 1960, at Baikonur Cosmodrome
Baikonur Cosmodrome
The Baikonur Cosmodrome , also called Tyuratam, is the world's first and largest operational space launch facility. It is located in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan, about east of the Aral Sea, north of the Syr Darya river, near Tyuratam railway station, at 90 meters above sea level...

 during the development of the Soviet
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 R-16 ICBM
Intercontinental ballistic missile
An intercontinental ballistic missile is a ballistic missile with a long range typically designed for nuclear weapons delivery...

. As a prototype
A prototype is an early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from.The word prototype derives from the Greek πρωτότυπον , "primitive form", neutral of πρωτότυπος , "original, primitive", from πρῶτος , "first" and τύπος ,...

 of the missile
Though a missile may be any thrown or launched object, it colloquially almost always refers to a self-propelled guided weapon system.-Etymology:The word missile comes from the Latin verb mittere, meaning "to send"...

 was being prepared for a test flight, it exploded on the launch pad when its second stage
Multistage rocket
A multistage rocket is a rocket that usestwo or more stages, each of which contains its own engines and propellant. A tandem or serial stage is mounted on top of another stage; a parallel stage is attached alongside another stage. The result is effectively two or more rockets stacked on top of or...

 engines ignited prematurely, killing many military personnel, engineers, and technicians working on the project. The official death toll was 78, but estimates are as high as 150, with 120 being the generally accepted figure. Despite the magnitude of the disaster, news of it was covered up for many years and the Soviet government did not acknowledge the event until 1989. Strategic Rocket Forces
Strategic Rocket Forces
The Strategic Missile Troops or Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation or RVSN RF , transliteration: Raketnye voyska strategicheskogo naznacheniya Rossiyskoy Federatsii, literally Missile Troops of Strategic Designation of the Russian Federation) are a military branch of the Russian...

 Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin was the commander of the R-16 development program.


Designed by experienced rocket scientist Mikhail Yangel
Mikhail Yangel
Mikhail Kuzmich Yangel , was a leading missile designer in the Soviet Union....

, the R-16 development program was commanded by Strategic Rocket Forces Marshal Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin
Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin
Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin was a Soviet military commander who served as Chief Marshal of Artillery, a position he held from May 8, 1959 until his untimely death...

. In October 1960 the rocket was nearing completion, and Yangel and Nedelin hoped to produce a successful launch before the 7 November anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution
October Revolution
The October Revolution , also known as the Great October Socialist Revolution , Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a political revolution and a part of the Russian Revolution of 1917...

. A prototype of the rocket was ready on the launchpad at Site-41 at Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the numerous tests that had to be undertaken before launch were commenced without delay.

23 October

On 23 October, the R-16 rocket prototype was on the launching pad awaiting final tests before its firing.
The missile was over 30 m long, 3.0 m in diameter and had a launch weight of 141 tons.
The rocket was fueled with Devil's Venom
Devil's venom
Devil's venom was a nickname coined by Soviet rocket scientists for a liquid rocket fuel composed of a dangerous combination of nitric acid and hydrazine -- specifically, hypergolic UDMH-nitric acid. It is extremely corrosive and toxic , but is used in rocketry because of its extreme efficiency.-...

 — hypergolic UDMH-nitric acid
Nitric acid
Nitric acid , also known as aqua fortis and spirit of nitre, is a highly corrosive and toxic strong acid.Colorless when pure, older samples tend to acquire a yellow cast due to the accumulation of oxides of nitrogen. If the solution contains more than 86% nitric acid, it is referred to as fuming...

 — which is used in rocketry, even though it is extremely corrosive and toxic (it produces poisonous gas when burned), because of its extreme efficiency. These risks were accounted for in the safety procedures in preparing the rocket for launching, but, late that day, technicians accidentally ruptured the pyrotechnic membranes of the first-stage fuel lines and allowed the fuel into the combustion chamber. Although that was not immediately dangerous, the fuel's nitric acid component was so corrosive it could not be in the fuel lines for more than two days without seriously damaging the rocket. Thus, the rocket team had either to launch the next day or drain the fuel from the rocket and then rebuild the engine, and so delay the program several weeks. The rocketeers decided to fire the rocket and accelerated preparations. Several other rocket components were tested that day and either replaced or adjusted according to procedure. Nedelin notified military dignitaries of the launch so that they could go to the site and see it.

24 October

On 24 October launching preparations continued. So much work remained that some procedures were performed simultaneously. Nedelin, impatient with the delay, left the military dignitaries in the observation post and returned to the launching pad to oversee the preparations of the rocket; he set a chair beside it.

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
Pyrotechnic valves
A Pyrotechnic valve is a one time use propulsion component often used to control propellant or pressurant systems on spacecraft. The device receives a signal voltage to fire a small munition which in turn shears away a small flange that initially blocked the flow path of the attached tubing....

 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 an enormous explosion occurred shortly thereafter. 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
Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist. He earned renown as the designer of the Soviet Union's Third Idea, a codename for Soviet development of thermonuclear weapons. Sakharov was an advocate of civil liberties and civil reforms in the...

 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. Nedelin and 125 other rocket personnel were killed, but Yangel survived. He had left the area to smoke a cigarette
A cigarette is a small roll of finely cut tobacco leaves wrapped in a cylinder of thin paper for smoking. The cigarette is ignited at one end and allowed to smoulder; its smoke is inhaled from the other end, which is held in or to the mouth and in some cases a cigarette holder may be used as well...

, and was in a bunker. Eighty-four soldiers and officers were buried in a common grave in the Leninsk
Baikonur , formerly known as Leninsk, is a city in Kyzylorda Province of Kazakhstan, rented and administered by the Russian Federation. It was constructed to service the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was officially renamed Baikonur by Russian president Boris Yeltsin on December 20, 1995.The shape of the...

 town park.


Complete secrecy was immediately imposed on the events of 24 October by Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev led the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War. He served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier, from 1958 to 1964...

. 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
Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev  – 10 November 1982) was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union , presiding over the country from 1964 until his death in 1982. His eighteen-year term as General Secretary was second only to that of Joseph Stalin in...

 to assemble a commission and head to the launch site to investigate. 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.

According to Sergei Khrushchev
Sergei Khrushchev
Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev , son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, now resides in the United States where he is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.-Career:...

, Brezhnev had insisted that the commission did not intend to punish anyone, explaining that "The guilty have already been punished".

Afterwards, Yangel was asked by Nikita Khrushchev "But why have you remained alive?" («А ты почему остался жив?»). Yangel answered in a trembling voice - "Walked away for a smoke. It's all my fault" («Отошел покурить. Во всем виноват я»). Later he suffered a heart attack
Myocardial infarction
Myocardial infarction or acute myocardial infarction , commonly known as a heart attack, results from the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die...

 and was out of work for months.

After the committee presented its report, the R-16 rocket program was resumed in January 1961 with its first successful flight that November. The delay to the R-16 spurred the USSR toward the development of more effective ICBMs and sparked Khrushchev's decision to install IRBM
Intermediate-range ballistic missile
An intermediate-range ballistic missile is a ballistic missile with a range of 3,000–5,500 km , between a medium-range ballistic missile and an intercontinental ballistic missile...

s in Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

. 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.

A memorial to the dead was erected near Baikonur and is still visited by RKA
Russian Federal Space Agency
The Russian Federal Space Agency , commonly called Roscosmos and abbreviated as FKA and RKA , is the government agency responsible for the Russian space science program and general aerospace research. It was previously the Russian Aviation and Space Agency .Headquarters of Roscosmos are located...

 officials before any manned launch.

Official acknowledgment

A news release stated that Nedelin had died "in a plane crash while on an undisclosed mission". The Italian news agency Continentale first reported on December 8, from undisclosed sources, that Marshal Nedelin and 100 people had been killed in a rocket explosion. The Guardian
The Guardian
The Guardian, formerly known as The Manchester Guardian , is a British national daily newspaper in the Berliner format...

reported on October 16, 1965, that captured spy Oleg Penkovsky
Oleg Penkovsky
Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, codenamed HERO ; April 23, 1919, Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, Soviet Russia, – May 16, 1963, Soviet Union), was a colonel with Soviet military intelligence in the late 1950s and early 1960s who informed the United Kingdom and the United States about the Soviet Union...

 had confirmed details of the missile accident, and exiled scientist Zhores Medvedev
Zhores Medvedev
Zhores Aleksandrovich Medvedev is a Russian biologist, historian and dissident. His twin brother is the historian Roy Medvedev.-Biography:Zhores Medvedev and his twin brother Roy Medvedev were born on 14 November 1925 in Tbilisi, Georgia, USSR....

 provided further details in 1976 in the British weekly magazine New Scientist
New Scientist
New Scientist is a weekly non-peer-reviewed English-language international science magazine, which since 1996 has also run a website, covering recent developments in science and technology for a general audience. Founded in 1956, it is published by Reed Business Information Ltd, a subsidiary of...

. However, it was not until April 16, 1989, that the Soviet Union acknowledged the events, with a report appearing in the weekly newsmagazine Ogoniok.

External links

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