Above: At Site 41 in Baikonur several monuments commemorate names of those lost in the explosion of the R-16 rocket on October 24, 1960.
On October 26, 1960, the Soviet newspapers published a short communique from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR informing that Marshall of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin has died in the airplane crash. No details about the accident or names of other victims have been released.
It took almost three decades before the first publication in the official Soviet press shed the light on what really happened in October 1960. In 1989, Ogonyok magazine, a mouthpiece of Gorbachev's "perestroika," run a story called "Sorok Pervaya Ploshadka," (or Site 41 in English). The article revealed to the Soviet people that Nedelin died in the explosion of a ballistic missile in Tyuratam along with numerous other nameless victims. Since Ogonyok's publication, several additional eyewitness accounts and the documents related to the accident have been published in Russia. Combined, they allow more or less accurate reconstruction of the the events of October 1960.
A prescription for disaster
In 1960, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev anxiously awaited coming of another playing card in the Cold War with the US. The R-16 ICBM developed by the collective of Mikhail Yangel promised all new level of readiness for the Soviet nuclear fleet. On his end, Mikhail Yangel, the chief designer of the R-16, could not wait to demonstrate to Khrushchev what his collective could achieve.
Yangel and Marshall of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin, the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces hoped to deliver a big present to Khrushchev for the celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 -- a successful test launch of the first R-16 missile.
In September 1960, despite many unsolved technical issues, Yangel authorized the delivery of the first rocket (Number LD1-3T) to the NIIP-5 test range in Tyuratam. Later, the veterans of the range would unanimously testify that the rocket was plagued with problems since the day its testing had started in Tyuratam on September 26, 1960. (85)
The state commission
Traditionally for the Soviet rocketry, so-called State Commission was formed to oversee the R-16 testing. The State Commission is a temporary body composed of top officials from the institutions involved in a particular project.
Nikita Khrushchev and G. Stepanov, Chief of Staff of the Soviet of Ministers, personally signed the list of the commission members.
The State Commission convened on October 3, 1960, considering the results of the testing of the LD1-3T vehicle at the processing area of Site 42. The meeting also approved the list of the launch personnel and officially set the launch date for October 23. (86)
By the end of the day on October 20, after some struggle with technical problems, primarily in the brand-new flight control system, the autonomous testing of the R-16 missile in the processing building of Site 42 was declared completed.
Point of no return
At 8 o'clock in the morning local time, October 21, the vehicle LD1-3T left the assembly building at Site 42 and one hour later the rocket was installed on the "left" launch pad at Site 41.
The initial checks at the launch pad were apparently uneventful and were completed successfully by October 23. On the same day the missile was fueled for launch.
By the time of the fueling, all unessential personnel was suppose to leave the area, however, according to several accounts, Marshall Nedelin and Chief-Designer Mikhail Yangel ignored the safety rules and stayed at the pad. Around 150 people, military and civilian, of all ranks also remained.
Neither, Chief of NIIP-5 test range in Tyuratam, Major General Konstantin Gerchik, nor Chief of the 2nd Test Directorate Grigoryants responsible for R-16 testing found themselves capable of enforcing the safety rules in the presence of Nedelin, their boss.
Soon after or around the time the fueling was completed, the launch personnel discovered a fuel leak onboard the rocket estimated at 142-145 drops per minute. Yet, the technical management characterized the leak as acceptable, as long as it was kept contained. The launch managers assigned a personnel from a chemical unit to keep the leak under control.
Several sources agree, that upon loading the rocket with its poisonous propellant, the R-16 launch team reached the point of no return. At the time, there was no procedure allowing to drain the propellant from the vehicle! In addition, LD1-3T could not be used for another launch attempt if highly-corrosive propellants were drained. (51)
October 23: First close call
As preparations for the launch continued, the technicians on the ground sent a command to activate pyrotechnically operated membranes on the oxidizer line of the second stage of the rocket. However, due to design and production flaws in the electrical circuit of the control panel, the membranes on the fuel line of the first stage were blown up instead.
The pyromembranes prevent propellant loaded in the tanks from entering the fuel lines leading toward the engines. With membranes blown up, the vehicle can not remain fueled on the launch pad for more than two days. As a result, the launch team was now facing a short launch deadline.
To make matters worse, several minutes after the membranes blew up, pyrotechnic devices on the valves of one of three engines in the first stage fired spontaneously. And to complete the picture, the electrical current distributor A-120 supplying the power to the rocket failed.
General Gerchik claimed that at some point his team had made a proposal to drain the fuel and remove the rocket from the launch pad, however, it was denied. (51) According to some reports, upon hearing the proposals to drain propellant from the missile, Nedelin started yelling that in the nuclear war there would be no chance for such things.
Around 6 p.m. local time on October 23, pre-launch processing was stopped so that the launch team could start replacing the valves and the current distributor. The managers then decided to take a break for the night and repeat the launch attempt on Monday, October 24.
October 24: Black Monday
In the morning October 24, the launch management made a decision to resume the preparations for the launch. In the wake of the problems with the control panel activating the pyromembranes, the engineers decided to use autonomous electrical sources for further operations with the membranes.
Boris Konoplev, the chief designer of the control system, personally monitored the checks from a control station set inside the bus parked on the launch pad.
As time of the launch approached, the members of the State Commission gathered at IP-1B ground control station at Site 43. It was located 800 meters from the launch pad 41. A wooden terrace was prepared for the commission at the site to view the launch.
Yet, when another 30-minute delay was announced, Nedelin, apparently feeling pressure from Moscow, demanded to drive him to the launch pad "to figure out what's going on." Eyewitnesses say that at least two times on October 24 Nedelin received calls through the special communication channels from Kremlin, possibly from Khrushchev himself, inquiring when the R-16 would fly. Obviously, the Marshall's numerous subordinates followed him to the pad.
There are still conflicting accounts of Nedelin's behavior in the day of the launch. His closest associates defend his decision to go to the pad as an example of his dedication to the program. Yet, other veterans of the program say that Nedelin's attitude did nothing but distract the personnel and further compromise safety at the pad.
When the commission members arrived to the launch pad, Konstantin Gerchik ordered to bring a chair for Nedelin, and a coach for other officials. Nedelin sat within 15-20 meters from the rocket!
By that time, technical problems and lack of time were pushing the technicians to the wall. Multiple tests and pre-launch operations had to be conducted at the same time. According to one account, a single "rough-draft" of the complex electrical system of the rocket turned out to be unavailable since an engineer who was carrying it was not allowed to the launch pad. (51)
In this atmosphere, a device called PTR (or Programming Current Distributor in English), which activates the systems onboard the rocket in a certain sequence, was left in a post-launch position after a series of tests. By the time the personnel in the command bunker discovered that the switch of the PTR was not in the proper configuration, the electrical batteries on both stages of the rocket were already powered up. One source explained the early activation of the batteries by the concern about their operation in the cold weather. (85)
Moreover, the membranes on the fuel and oxidizer lines of the second stage had been activated as well, so, the components of the self-igniting propellant were only one valve away from the combustion chamber of the engine. (62)
In his memoirs, Sergei Khrushchev quotes a witness in the command bunker who reportedly overheard someone to ask: "So should I move PTR to zero?" and someone else to reply: "Go ahead." (87) On its way to a "zero" position, the PTR switch activated an electrically-driven pneumatic valve EPK VO-8, controlling the ignition of the engine on the second stage of the rocket. This command was intended as a back up to the primary system, which normally would ignite the engine of the second stage in flight. (62)
At 18:45 local time and around 30 minutes before the scheduled launch, as estimated 250 unsuspecting people were still around the rocket, the second stage engine came to life. Instantly, the roaring flame of the engine burst through the fuel tank of the first stage directly below, initiating an enormous explosion of the fully-fueled rocket. In seconds, a giant fireball, up to 120 meters in diameter engulfed the launch pad 41.
Probably, many people were incinerated instantly, while many others died in the following several seconds of a living hell. Eyewitnesses described a horrifying scenes of burning people running from the rocket or hanging on the their safety harnesses from the access pads. Those who were on the ground and tried to escape the flames had to overcome the fence surrounding the pad and a fresh tar, which was melting under their feet. Some had no choice but to jump into the wells dug around the launch complex, only to suffocate from the poisonous propellant fumes released by the inferno.
Minutes before the disaster, General Mrykin invited Yangel and Iosifiyan, a leading engineer in electrical systems, to take a cigarette break. Iosifiyan also convinced Bogomolov, a colleague, who did not smoke, to go with them, presumably to discuss the situation. According to Chertok's memoirs, Iosifiyan and Bogomolov hoped to talk Yangel into delaying the launch one more time. (62)
Minutes later, safely outside the launch complex boundary, Yangel and others, who went for a break, saw the catastrophe unfolding before them. The associates had to hold Yangel, who seemingly in nervous shock tried to throw himself back to the pad.
In the meantime, in the control bunker General Matrenin yelled to his subordinates not to touch the main control panel, trying to preserve the position of switches at the moment of the accident. At this point, a burned person burst into the bunker, as its inhabitants rushed to his help. After an attempt to shut the door into the bunker failed, Matrenin ordered the personnel of the bunker to put on gas masks. As explosions subsided, Matrenin commanded the survivors to exit the bunker and move toward the check point of the launch complex.
Before a professional rescue squad could arrive at the pad, Senior Lieutenant B. Klimov and Lieutenant Maslov at a nearby IP-1B ground control station had formed a team of 30 soldiers to assist with rescue operations. The group pulled out first poisoned and burned survivors, as well as torched bodies of the dead.
Although powerful explosions at the pad continued for about 20 seconds, the following fire raged for two hours. The flashes of light were seen as far as 50 kilometers from the pad, including the main residential area of the range. There, at Site 10, numerous relatives of the victims were about to learn the news, they could not imagine in their worst nightmares.
As buses sent from Site 10 returned with the first survivors, the officials refused to tell the local hospital what kind of "secret" chemical poisoned the patients. Only after several demands by the doctors, the military gave out the information needed to threat the victims.
Among injured survivors of the fire was General Gerchik, the chief of the range, who was delivered to the hospital with extensive II- and III-degree burns. According to his own recollections, at the time of the explosion he was standing right by the missile, checking the situation with the leak. Gerchik claimed a burst of wind has thrown the flame away from him.
Total 49 survivors were delivered to the hospital and placed under intensive care. 16 of them would die within several months.
The same night October 24, the message with Yangel's signature arrived to Kremlin via special communication channel. It informed that ... "during final preparations for the launch a fire took place which caused the destruction of the tanks with components of the propellant. As a result of the accident, there are casualties numbered up to 100 or more people, including fatalities -- several dozen people. Chief Marshall of Artillery Nedelin was present at the test site. Now, the search for him is going on."
Upon learning the news, Khrushchev directed Leonid Brezhnev immediately head to Tyuratam with a group of experts to investigate. Sergei Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs that his father explicitly warned the investigative team members not to rush to judgment. (87)
The commission's plane landed in Tyuratam in the morning October 25. By 9 a.m. Brezhnev and his team arrived at Site 41. The missile lay on the ground with its ripped first and second stages still attached to each other. The bodies of victims, most of them burned beyond recognition, were taken to a special shelter for identification. The search team found only few remains, which could belong to Nedelin. The body of Konoplev, chief of OKB-692, was identified by its height.
Two Yangel's deputies Berlin and Kontsevoi, both chiefs of two test directorates in Tyuratam Grigoryants and Evgeniy Ostashev were all among the dead. Grigoryants was a chief of the 2nd Directorate directly responsible for the R-16 testing and his presence at the pad was natural. Yet, Ostashev, led the 1st Directorate, which was testing Korolev's R-7 missiles, and had nothing to do with the R-16 operations. As it transpired, Ostashev showed up at Site 41 to get Nedelin's signature on the paperwork confirming operational status of the brand-new Site-31 for the R-7 ICBM.
Lev Grishin, Deputy Chairman of State Committee for Defense Technology, who reportedly was going to catch up with Yangel for a cigarette break, died in hospital 11 days after the disaster.
Russian sources disagreed on the exact death toll in the R-16 accident. On October 27 and 28, Major-General G. Efimenko, who was filling the position of the range commander, signed an official list of casualties. After being delivered to Brezhnev, this document remained in the classified archive of the Central Committee of CPSU, before being released by the Yeltsin Administration.
According to the document, 74 people (57 military and 17 civilians) were killed on the launch pad, and 49 injured. With 16 more people, who later died from their injuries, the official death toll rose to 90 dead. Bodies of two soldiers were found outside of the perimeter of the Site 41 after the official list of victims had been submitted, bringing number of dead to 92 people (74 military and 18 civilians).
On a drizzling day of October, the members of the investigation commission witnessed a heartbreaking funeral of the military personnel at Site 10. Total 84 soldiers and officers were buried in the mass grave at the site known today as Soldier's Park. The bodies of some military victims as well as those of civilian engineers would be shipped to their home towns for individual burials. As the entire accident was kept under strictest secrecy, the relatives of the dead were advised to tell others that their loved ones were killed in the airplane crash. Even in Tyuratam, a closed site for the outsiders, the memorial at the grave of the victims would not be built until three years after the accident.
Speaking to the staff at Tyuratam, Brezhnev said the commission had no intention to punish anybody. "All guilty had been punished already," Brezhnev reportedly said.
The commission concluded that the management of the testing was overly confident in the safe performance of the complex vehicle, which resulted in the decisions taken without thorough analysis. "The direct cause of the accident," -- the commission's final report said -- "was the shortcomings in the design of the control system, which allowed unscheduled operation of the of the EPK V-08 valve controlling the ignition of the main engine of the second stage during pre-launch processing. This problem was not discovered during all previous tests. The fire on the vehicle LD1-3T could've been avoided if the reconfiguration of the current distributor into a zero position was conducted before the activation of the onboard power supply."
The commission recommended among other things to conduct additional tests of the flight control system of the R-16 missile, reevaluate the sequence of the pre-launch processing, to improve safety measures. The commission also recommended within 10-15 days to restore the damaged launch pad and complete the construction of the second launch facility for the R-16 planning to resume the test program in November 1960!
Chairman: M. Nedelin, Deputy Minister of Defense, Marshall of Artillery and the Commander of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces;
Nikita Khrushchev and G. Stepanov, Chief of Staff of the Soviet of Ministers, personally signed the list of the commission members.
According to the recollections of Konstantin Gerchik, a former chief at Tyuratam, the creation of the commission for the R-16 testing was approved by a decree of the Soviet of Ministers # 236-89 on February 22, 1960. (51) Another participant of the events, General A. Matrenin, claimed that this decree was approved in September 1960. (86)
List of victims dated October 28, 1960, as they appeared in the official document (# 3386c from military unit v/ch 11284) from a secret dossier of the Central Committee CPSU. (51)
Killed military personnel:
Killed NIIP-5 personnel:
Killed representatives of the industry:
Injured military personnel:
Injured representatives of the industry:
Deputy Chairman State Commission for Defense Technology: Grishin L.A.;
Engineers: Astakhov A.N., Volubuev N.K. Khomenya A.S.
Total injured 42 military personnel (1 from Ministry of Defense; 1 chief of the range, 2 from KGB; 7 from 2nd Directorate; 17 officers and 13 soldiers from OIICh, 1 officers from another unit; 7 people from the industry.
A LIVING HELL: As the first flash of fire burst into the air over Site 41, a cameraman of the film and photo lab in Tyuratam started rolling the film in his movie camera. A still frame from this film shows survivors of the inferno running toward the edge of the launch pad with their cloth burning. Traces of smoke on the ground mark places where burning bodies fell. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
During his visit to Tyuratam in 1964, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (right) paid respect to the victims of the Nedelin disaster.
A monument marks the site of the R-16 explosion with the names of those who perished. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
At the turn of the 21st century, Site 41 stayed abandoned at the edge of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A schematic display at the site of the Nedelin disaster shows the layout of the R-16 launch complex at the time of the accident on Ocotober 24, 1960. A sexagon-shaped launch pad was surrounded by four light towers, by a command post on the left side and a movie camera site on the right side. The missile would be installed in the center of the pad. The place of Nedelin's death is marked with a circle. The entrance into the underground command bunker is visible on the left side of the photo. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Ground control station IP-1B, later remaned IP-2, as it seen from Site 41 at the turn of the 21st century. The facility was origianlly built to support R-16 program. All members of the state commission overseeing the R-16 operations were suppose to monitor launch operations from IP-2. Instead they followed Nedelin to the launch pad. As the disaster at the Site 41 was unfolding, the personnel from IP-1B was the first to come to the rescue. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak