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The Nedelin Catastrophe
Part of Oberg Corner

Baikonur airfield

Baikonur airfield
Baikonur airfield control tower.
Credit: © Mark Wade

James Oberg's classic account of the greatest disaster in space history.

Disaster at the Cosmodrome
James Oberg
appeared in Air & Space Magazine December 1990
Reproduced by permission of the author.

The bodies that could be identified numbered several dozen, including that of the officer whose poor judgement had caused the disaster. They were shipped home from the Soviet central Asia launch site for individual interment. Dozens more were burned beyond recognition in the horrible conflagration, and whatever remains could be found -- teeth, charred leather, shards of bone, keys and coins -- were swept up from the scorched concrete, placed in a single coffin, and lowered into a grave in a park in the rocket workers' city of Leninsk.

The families of these Soviet rocket workers were alone in their grief. Officials quickly announced that the commander had died in an airplane crash. As far as the rest of the world knew in that fall of 1960, the Soviets' efforts in space continued to move from one crowning success to another.

European journalists in Moscow soon picked up rumors that a gigantic rocket had exploded "in Siberia," killing hundreds, but those stories quickly took their place amid other oft-embellished legends of dead cosmonauts, super weapons, and similar folklore. U.S. intelligence officers had something more concrete: several blurred, spotty photographs of the site brought back by a Discoverer recoverable reconnaissance satellite. ('The scorched area was tremendous," one officer told me two decades later shaking his head.)

But at the time they were as quiet as the Soviets about their findings. Something horrible may indeed have happened, Western experts concluded, but there was no way to be sure what it was.

Time passed. The grave site in the Leninsk park was covered with a grassy mound 40 feet across and fenced in. Local officials erected a memorial obelisk, with 54 name-bearing plaques spaced along the four sides of its square perimeter. Friends, relatives, and co-workers at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch complex kept the memorial decorated.

Other disasters occurred at the Cosmodrome from time to time, and new memorials were added to the park. One touching tribute was built in a corner of the spaceport's museum -- until recently kept secret from outsiders both Soviet and foreign -- where a scorched notebook found on an engineer's body was displayed behind glass. No label was necessary. Over the decades the local rocket workers, who knew the Cosmodrome's full history from first-hand accounts of survivors and family members, wore the wooden case smooth with their hands.

The recent opening up of the Cosmodrome to outsiders also opened up many of the workers' bitterness at the decades of official denial. "If you only knew of all the explosions and deaths," one museum official lamented to a visitor earlier this year, "you would be horrified at the size of the deceptions." Evidently much more is still held in secret Soviet archives or, worse, was documented in records the museum staff was regularly ordered to destroy. But none of those later accidents at the Cosmodrome (or another that killed 50 men at the Plesetsk rocket center north of Moscow in 1980) ever approached the death toll of that October evening only three years after Sputnik 1.

Over the years, many conflicting accounts of the disaster reached the West. As a lifelong space nut fascinated with Soviet mysteries and the sleuthing needed to unravel them, I collected and evaluated the stories and tried to fit the pieces together for more than a quarter of a century. Details came from credible Soviet sources both inside the USSR and overseas. Top-level spy Oleg Penkovskiy, executed in 1965, wrote in his memoirs that a "nuclear-powered" missile had exploded, and many recent Russian émigré elaborated on the theme (apparently basing their reports on the coincidental deaths of several top Soviet nuclear weapons experts elsewhere that October). Émigré Zhores Medvedev, who had a record of correct assessments, reported that the disaster involved a "moon rocket" needed for a propaganda spectacular. Nikita Khrushchev himself mentioned the disaster in the first volume of his memoirs, smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the United States in 1970, but he gave no hint of the role he may have played.

From these stories a scenario emerged. Late one afternoon a rocket's countdown was halted when problems cropped up. The launch team, ordered outside to attempt repairs, mounted the scaffolding around the balky, fully fueled missile. Suddenly the second-stage engine ignited, bursting the fuel tanks of the first stage and covering the launch pad in a tidal wave of flame.

In my books, articles, and lectures, I labeled the event "the Nedelin Catastrophe." If any one man deserved such an eponymous disaster, it was Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, then 54 years old. The commanding officer had violated all standards of safety when he ordered the technicians onto the launch pad. Perhaps to support his order he went outside himself, and he died with the others when the missile exploded.

I tried to add it all up. I knew that two unmanned Mars probes had been unsuccessfully launched only two weeks before from the pad used to launch Sputnik, and I believed that the basic Sputnik booster, the R-7, was the only big Soviet rocket flying at the time, so I postulated that the rocket that had blown up was also a Mars-bound vehicle. The Soviets generally prepare three vehicles for any major space effort. The pressure on Nedelin to launch would have been intense: Khrushchev had been at the United Nations in New York earlier that month giving a speech about Soviet foreign policy and anticipating another spectacular feat to flaunt before the world. Furthermore, the launch window--the planetary alignment that allowed such launchings--would have been rapidly closing day by day. That was the scenario I proposed in my book about the Soviet space program, Red Star in Orbit, in 1981.

The Mars rocket scenario couldn't account for a few troubling items, however. The ships used to track the Mars probes had been in position in the south Atlantic and northeast Pacific for the failed October 10th and 14th launches, but they had set course for their home ports before the explosion. There were also reports of the involvement of rocket designer Mikhail Yangel, who was not a member of the team behind Sputnik and the two previous Mars shots. Furthermore, the Sputnik pad was used in a launch only five weeks after the explosion, suggesting little if any damage there. Most tantalizing was the spy Penkovskiy's explicit reference to funerals at a rocket plant in the Ukraine, an installation later revealed to be devoted entirely to military projects.

By the time I updated the account for a new book, Uncovering Soviet Disasters, in 1988, my belief in the Mars hypothesis was fading. As the book went to press, I began to regret not offering a second hypothesis: that the rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile.

And still I despaired of ever finding out what really happened, short of the violent overthrow of the Soviet government and a personal search through captured top-secret archives. These pages of space history, I thought, were fated to remain blank forever.

But my pessimism was overtaken by recent events in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the first published account of the disaster appeared. A magazine article by Aleksandr Bolotin, a young officer at the Cosmodrome, in the pro-glasnost weekly Ogonyok, identified the rocket as an ICBM. More than confirming my suspicions, the article personalized the horror for me. When it mentioned a memorial obelisk over the burial site, I promised myself that someday, somehow, I would visit it.

Early 1990 found me before the obelisk, reading aloud the names of the dead and placing a bouquet by the stone. Standing there in the mid-winter gloom, brushing the snow off a few of the plaques, I did not feel like the winner in some "pierce the cover-up" contest. Rather, I was pleased that after 30 years, a rip in the fabric of reality was finally being repaired. A feeling of wholeness, of a fully restored flow in a history long obstructed, made me proud to have played a small outsider's role in the mending process.

I had arrived at the summit of my investigation thanks to a project on the Soviet space program for PBS' NOVA television series (to air in the United States this February), for which I served as researcher and on-camera tour guide. Getting to the Cosmodrome last February was difficult, but the crew and I surmounted the bureaucratic obstacles and at last arrived at Baikonur. We asked for a van to take us to the memorial park I'd spotted from the bus on the way in from the airport, and we had to spend half our free afternoon pleading and prodding for it. Persistence finally paid off.

Many of the plaques were cracked with age, but the shrine had not been ignored. Flowers, pine boughs, and tufts of prairie grass decorated many of the markers. I asked my guide who had made these visits so many years after the explosion and his reply caught me by surprise: "Weddings." Since the rocket workers' city has no World War II memorials like the ones newlyweds traditionally visit and decorate elsewhere in the U.S.S.R, the obelisk had assumed the role. Several times a week, groups of young people came on foot from wedding ceremonies in Leninsk to stand by the grave site, pause in thought, and honor their dead.

But every answer raises another question I might have taken the 54 names listed there as the total death toll had I not noticed that Nedelin's name was not among them. When I asked my guide why, he replied that the commander's body had been sent home for burial. How many others had been sent home? I asked. The guide thought for a moment "About 40,"he suggested tentatively. The death toll, then, was nearly 100 men

The details of the disaster were confirmed and elaborated on by the Ogonyok article, the only one ever to appear. The designer Yangel was in charge of the technical proceedings at the pad, it said, but at one point he became so nervous he stepped into a special fireproof hut for a cigarette. It was while he was inside that the rocket exploded, probably when a technician plugged the first stage's umbilical cable into the second stage's receptacle, causing a normally innocent command wire to trigger the ignition.

Yangel survived by a fluke. But many of the USSR's spaceflight pioneers perished in the accident. One man named Nosov had pushed the launch button for Sputnik three years earlier; another named Ostashev had been instrumental in developing the Sputnik booster. In Leninsk there are streets named "Nosov" and "Ostashev" among the usual "Marx," "October," and "Red Army" streets.

As I stood before the obelisk, the gruesome details in the Ogonyok article came to mind. The explosion had occurred on Monday, October 24, shortly after 6:45 in the evening. One man who miraculously survived gave this account: "At the moment of the explosion I was about 30 meters from the base of the rocket. A thick stream of fire unexpectedly burst forth, covering everyone around. Part of the military contingent and testers instinctively tried to flee from the danger zone, people ran to the side of the other pad, toward the bunker ... but on this route was a strip of new-laid tar, which immediately melted. Many got stuck in the hot sticky mass and became victims of the fire .... The most terrible fate befell those located on the upper levels of the gantry: the people were wrapped in fire and burst into flame like candles blazing in mid-air. The temperature at the center of the fire was about 3,000 degrees. Those who had run away tried while moving to tear off their burning clothing, their coats and overalls. Alas, many did not succeed in doing this."

Another witness had been on the pad but had finished his work and been ordered away by Nedelin. He went to the observation point on a small hill about two miles away, where a crowd of officers and engineers was relaxing. "Above the pad erupted a column of fire," he recalled. 'In a daze we watched the flames burst forth again and again until all was silent." He rushed to the medical center to help the survivors and found the front of the building surrounded by bodies. "All the bodies were in unique poses, all were without clothes or hair. It was impossible to recognize anybody. Under the light of the moon they seemed the color of ivory." It was a long time ago and the bodies had been at rest for decades, but standing at the obelisk I felt a chill down my spine.

Andrey Sakharov's newly published memoirs add a poignant detail to the tragedy. When the accident occurred, he wrote, "automatic cameras had been triggered along with the engines, and they recorded the scene. The men on the scaffolding dashed about in the fire and smoke; many jumped off and vanished into the flames. One man momentarily escaped from the fire but got tangled up in the barbed wire surrounding the launch pad. The next moment he too was engulfed in flames."

What appeared to be authentic footage of the explosion aired on Soviet television last April 12, "Cosmonaut Day." The films showed a rocket exploding and human figures on fire running and falling. But the horror was not specifically identified or connected with Nedelin, who is still, officially, a hero.

Back at the launch site, Nedelin's memory is not so dear. When I had first asked to see "the Nedelin memorial" I was gently rebuked by my young guide, who hadn't even been born when the tragedy occurred. "The monument is for all who died that day," he said. There is no Nedelin Street in Leninsk either.

With these pages of rocket history blank no longer, I mused about the implications of the tragedy. The revelation that the exploding rocket was a military ICBM puts the disaster into the greater perspective of the Cold War. Indeed, it can be argued that the catastrophe almost led to a thermonuclear war. The Sputnik's R-7 had turned out to be a great booster but a poor weapon. Only four were ever deployed as missiles, at the Plesetsk military center. A second Soviet rocket team was pushing hard for a new rocket to counter the Atlas missiles the U.S. was then deploying. It was that missile, the R-16, that exploded.

Flight tests the following year were unsuccessful, probably due to the loss of so many experienced engineers. By early 1962, as Americans began deploying ICBMs in entire squadrons, Khrushchev was faced with a tremendous missile gap. It was at this point that he decided to place missiles in Cuba, a gamble that brought the world to the brink of war during the Cuban missile crisis. But as space historian Curtis Peebles recently observed, the strategy would not have been necessary had the Soviets' new missile succeeded sooner.

Those speculations tugged at me as I walked around the memorial square and read each plaque's name. They were all Russian or Ukrainian, and most belonged to 20- and 21-year-old soldiers. I couldn't help thinking that their loss might have been more meaningful had it been for space exploration, the common world struggle that has claimed so many other lives around the planet. But these young men had died building a weapon, not a space probe.

I stood by the cold, lonely graves and tried to imagine the rocket workers' perspective, influenced by wars both hot and cold. They surely thought of themselves as defenders of their nation and as explorers too, since multipurpose missiles, such as the R-7, were being diverted to peaceful space activities. For no fault of their own they met a horrible fate. It had been my happier fate to spend three decades wrestling their reality from the denial and distortion wrapped around it. Now their nation was safe, and so was the truth.

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