There's some justice in the fact that the worst rocket accident in history, which happened 50 years ago this week, is remembered by the name of the man who caused it.
Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin was an ambitious military leader who rose to command the Soviet Union's Strategic Missile Forces during the Cold War. In the autumn of 1960, his main focus was developing the new R-16 intercontinental ballistic missile, which was meant to be an answer to the American Atlas. According to Soviet rocket designer Boris Chertok in his landmark history Rockets and People, work on the R-16 was proceeding ahead of schedule, with a target date of July 1961 for the first launch, when Nedelin upped the ante: He would launch by November 7, in time for the 43rd anniversary of the Soviet revolution.
Nedelin's desire for glory cost him his life, and the lives of nearly 100 others. Rushing the schedule led exhausted workers to take all kinds of short cuts and risks, including continuing to work on the missile after it was fully fueled on the launch pad at Baikonur, with some 250 people milling around within close range.
On the evening of October 24, a cascading series of errors, including a mistaken switch setting, led to a rocketeer's worst nightmare: the R-16's second stage fired on the pad, still attached to the first stage underneath it, which immediately exploded.
Chertok describes the scene:
Propellant components splashing out of the tanks soaked the testers standing nearby. Fire instantly devoured them. Poisonous vapors killed them. Of course, the quality of the film frames is not up to today's standards but when viewed in slow motion you can see how the missile and erector burned and how the frantic people trapped on the service platforms jumped straight into the fire and were instantly consumed. The enormous temperature at a significant distance from the epicenter of the fire burned peoples' clothing, and many of those fleeing who got bogged down in molten asphalt burned up completely.
There was an investigation, but no witch-hunt or official blame. Soviet authorities decided that being on the scene of the accident was punishment enough for the engineers and technicians who survived. Families of the victims were told to keep quiet, and the first detailed accounts of the accident were not published until the late 1980s.
As for Marshal Nedelin, he was near the base of the missile at the time of the explosion, and perished in the blast. Writes Chertok: "The majority of the dead were unrecognizable. ... Nedelin was identified by the 'Gold Star' medal that had survived."
A new documentary on the Nedelin disaster will air on Russian TV this weekend: