The Space Race of the 1960s saw the USSR beating the United States at every turn. The Russians achieved the first satellite, the first man (and woman) in orbit, the first spacewalk, the first lunar probe, and the first three-man crew. It seemed like they simply couldn't fail.
But they did fail. And the repressive Soviet government covered it up. In fact, the Russians never announced their missions beforehand, so failures could be ignored, and only successes trumpeted to the press. And for almost 30 years, they kept secret what is perhaps the biggest rocket disaster of all time.
It was called the Nedelin (accent on the middle syllable, "day") Catastrophe, named after the Chief Marshal of Artillery who oversaw the Soviet ICBM program. The Russians were discovering that missiles used for warfare were powerful enough to send people into space, so the test flight of the R-16 on in October of 1960 was important for military, scientific, and propaganda purposes.
The R-16 was plagued with both fuel and electrical problems. This was particularly dangerous because the fuel was so toxic and corrosive it was known as "Devil's Venom." Once this concoction had been added to the missile, there was no way to drain it. So the missile would have to be launched or carefully moved away. Nedelin was determined to have a successful flight by November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so a launch, at some point, was the only option. Even when the fuel was found to be leaking, technicians decided it was "contained" and within acceptable limits.
The missile was now fueled but not ready for launch—some fuel valves and the electrical current distributor had failed. Anyone not involved in the repairs should have cleared the area, but Nedelin himself wanted to monitor the progress, and if the boss stayed, all the other personnel stayed. They worked all day and then called off efforts for the night.
The next day, it seemed like everything was "go"... but then came another 30-minute delay. This caused Nedelin, who was in contact with Premier Kruschev throughout the operation, to return to the launchpad to see the problem. His subordinates, staff, and security went with him. Due either to courage or ignorance, he sat in a chair and drank coffee about 50 feet from the fully fueled ICBM. Technicians worked on the rocket while their "Mission Control" counterparts tested functions from a bunker far away.
At 6:45 pm on October 24, someone or something tripped the rocket's second stage to ignite. It was obviously still attached to the first stage, which exploded. A 350-foot fireball engulfed the area in temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees ("normal" fire is about 1,100). Workers closest to the rocket were instantly incinerated. Others burned to death or died from the toxic fumes. People ran in all directions but were stopped by a perimeter security fence. Some found drainage wells and jumped in, only to be suffocated by smoke and gas.
Remote cameras captured the event in chilling silence. In the declassified film, you can see people running, stumbling, and collapsing. One seems to be on fire as he sprints away from the explosion. The flames burned for two hours. Controllers in the bunker offered what help to the survivors they could, but full rescue operations had to wait for military from the nearest base to arrive.
In a classic case of government secrecy, at first the authorities who brought burn victims to the hospital wouldn't tell the doctors what type of chemical caused their injuries. Only after official approval was given could they reveal the truth.
Due to the cover-up, it's hard to know exactly how many people died. One source says 74 military personnel and 18 civilians, for a total of 92. A few months later, an Italian agency said it was 101. Among the dead were Nedelin, three agency chiefs, the country's top missile guidance designer, and various technicians, designers, and engineers. Two high-ranking officials survived because they had left the area for a cigarette break.
Perhaps most tragic of all was that the USSR forbade the families of the victims to speak truthfully about the accident. They were instructed to say that their relatives were injured in a plane crash. Only after 1989, with the collapse of the government, did the facts come to light, and now there's a memorial to the dead at Baikonur, still used by the Russian Space Agency. Officials visit the memorial before every manned launch.
Jason Ginsburg participated in the NASA Social event for the launch of the CRS-16 mission. He is a lifelong fan of space exploration and works for Discovery Channel.