Somewhat Short of Mars: the Nedelin Disaster

d 1960 Baikonur, USSR

Contributed by Bill Higgins, HIGGINS@FNAL.FNAL.GOV

Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin supervised launch crews at the then-secret base in Kazakhstan which was home to the Soviet space program. On 24 October 1960 they attempted to launch a Mars probe with a launch window rapidly closing and a lot of prestige on the line. Nothing happened. The first stage failed to ignite and the rocket just sat there.

The Commander in Chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces ordered a team of engineers to the pad to inspect it-- maybe they could fix whatever was wrong and still make the launch window. The vehicle was fully fueled, pyrotechnics armed, etc., and this violated not only all safety rules but common sense as well. But Nedelin was a brave leader, so he too emerged from the control bunker and joined his men at the rocket.

Meanwhile, the launch order caused at least one thing to work properly-- a sequencer counting down time to ignition of the fourth stage. This poor beast thought it was on its way to Mars, and not sitting atop a busted, fully fueled booster at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Several minutes after the countdown ended, the fourth-stage engine ignited. Fifty-six people died, including Marshal Nedelin.

There is a lot of detail on the Soviet explosion (but not much on Field Marshal Nedelin himself) in James Oberg's books *Red Star in Orbit* and *Uncovering Soviet Disasters*. The incident was shrouded in mystery and it took decades for Western analysts of the Soviet space effort to figure it out.


Postscript, Sep-2001, from Robert G. Kennedy III (

Nedelin's crew was testing the R-16 ballistic missile, not sending a deep space probe to Mars. The Mars probe failure on the pad 10 days earlier often gets confused with the Nedelin Disaster, which killed more like 100 people, not 56. The Soviets didn't manage to land on Mars until 1971 (and that was a crash landing).

Asif Siddiqi's recent book, /Challenge to Apollo/ (US GPO, 2000), or Jim Harford's biography of Sergei Korolyov, /Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon/ (Wiley, 1997) have much more accurate info than Jim Oberg's early books which were written before the Wall came down.

To your list of doomed engineers, you might well add Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was the Soviet equivalent of Germany's Guderian, France's deGaulle, and Britain's Liddell-Hart. An military engineer/tactician, he developed a variety of highly advanced weapons and fighting before he was liquidated by Stalin along with most of the Red Army's brains in 1937.

Back to "Doomed Engineers"