On the 23rd of October 1960, Russian technicians working on an R-16 rocket prototype at Baikonur Cosmodrome accidentally allowed fuel into the combustion chamber. The fuel, commonly known as Devil’s Venom, was extremely corrosive and would damage the fuel lines. The engine needed to be used within 48 hours or drained and rebuilt. Strategic Rocket Forces Marshal Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin, the commander of the program, was looking forward to showing their progress to Nikita Khrushchev and didn’t wish to risk further delays. It is claimed that when he heard the proposal to drain the fuel from the engine and rebuild it, he retorted that there would be no time for such things in a nuclear war.
The following day was declared launch day. Observers waited at a wooden terrace to observe the launch. However, as the preparations took longer than expected, Nedelin became impatient and left the observation post to find out what was causing the delay.
A Programmable Current Distributor (PCD) was set up incorrectly and specific safety mechanisms had been disabled during testing. As a result of an unfortunate sequence of events, the second stage engines of the rocket were fired during launch preparations.
The flames from the engines lit the fuel in the first-stage tanks, which exploded. Those working on the rockets were incinerated. Personnel out of range of the initial explosion were unable to get past the security fence and burned to death in the fuel fire. Somewhere between 70 and 150 people died, including Field Marshal Nedelin. The disaster was covered up for nearly 30 years.
Complete secrecy was immediately imposed on the events of 24 October by Nikita Khrushchev. 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 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 off-site in bunkers.
According to Sergei Khrushchev, Brezhnev had insisted that the commission did not intend to punish anyone, explaining that “The guilty have already been punished”.
The R-16 rocket had its first successful flight in 1961. It wasn’t until 1965 that details of the missile accident became known. It was April 1989 before the Soviet Union acknowledged the disaster.
On the 23rd of October 2010, these photographs were taken to make sure no one could deny the events of a Saturday:
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