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Nedelin Catastrophe

October 24, 2010

Shortcuts and quick fixes are seldom a good idea -- especially when it comes to rockets. Fifty years ago today, for example, a rush to get the job done led to the deadliest accident in the history of rocketry.

Engineers were preparing a new ballistic missile for launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet Union's equivalent of Cape Canaveral. The launch had been delayed by several days, and Moscow was demanding action.

On the evening of October 24th, 1960, the countdown again was going badly.

The official in charge of the project was Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin. He ordered engineers and technicians to fix the problems without draining the fuel from the rocket's tanks. Nedelin himself watched from a chair near the base of the rocket.

While repairs were being made, the second stage ignited. Flame ripped through the first stage, setting off a massive fireball. Flames engulfed dozens of workers. Others were trapped by melting tar and barbed-wire fences, and either burned to death or were suffocated by the toxic propellants.

Moscow reported that Nedelin died in a plane crash, and gave him a hero's funeral. The remains of many other victims were buried in a mass grave at Baikonur.

News of the disaster wasn't released until after the fall of the Soviet Union. And even now, the full story isn't clear. The official report said that about 90 men died, but most researchers put the number closer to 125 -- victims of a rush to get the job done.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010


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