On October 24, 1960, the largest tragedy of the missile program occurred at the Baikonur launching site as the R-16 long-range missile exploded during a test launch. Almost the entire engineering crew – 100 people according to some sources – were burned alive as a result of the unjustified rush to complete the project and inexcusable criminal negligence.
At the peak of the Cold War, one of the country’s major concerns was reinforcement of its general defense potential, and engineers who worked on the project had to deal with considerable pressure to complete their tasks on a tight schedule. The government pushed the launch date for the missile to fall on the 43rd anniversary of the October Revolution, though it was generally acknowledged that the missile was far from perfect and needed significant corrections.
To complete the project on time, the special missile teams worked on-site 24 hours a day. The missile weighed a total of 140 tons, with 130 tons being the weight of the extremely toxic dangerous fuel.
On October 23, seven hours before the launch, a number of serious faults were detected, placing the crew in a dilemma as to whether to halt the launch, empty the fuel and begin repairs or to risk launching the missile on schedule. Since the first option would delay the launch by a month, which was unacceptable for the authorities, the special commission decided to make quick adjustments without emptying the fuel tanks - a very serious violation of the safety regulations – and go ahead with the launch. The pressure from Moscow created a frenzy; while the regulations required that specialists fix one problem at a time, on that day, everyone performed their tasks simultaneously.
Twenty minutes before the launch, leaking components containing fuel mixed together as the rocket was ripped apart by the explosion as 130 tons of the toxic fuel turned the site into pandemonium. Anyone near the rocket had no chance of surviving: the fire kit was placed 50 meters from the burning missile and was the first to go up in flames. Since no medical aid was provided at the site for injured people, the evacuation only began when the fire died down on its own.
The number of the victims is still not clear, as different sources name 76 to 97 people who had died with some 50 others being seriously injured.
Academician Mikhail Yangel, Nedelin’s right hand, along with some of his colleagues, miraculously escaped when they went to have a cigarette far from the launch site and out of reach of the fire. After the tragedy, Nikita Khrushchev’s first surprised question to Yangel was, “And why aren’t you dead?”
When the government commission in charge of the Soviet missile program at the time, and headed by Leonid Brezhnev, arrived on site the next day, they decided no one person would be blamed as the ultimate cause of the accident, which was ruled as exceptional criminal negligence. A thorough job was done on covering up the details, as all documents were classified and newsreels destroyed.
A common practice in the midst of the Cold War, the media was discreet about the tragedy; only two days later was Marshal Nedelin announced to have been killed in a plane crash. However, some facts did leak to the West, causing rumors to be heard within the Soviet Union. Officially, the case was only declassified in the 1990s.
While Marshal Nedelin was buried in the Kremlin walls with the honors an officer of a rank as high as his received, other victims were buried almost secretly in different places, with no death dates indicated on their grave stones. By doing this, the authorities tried to prevent people from wondering what caused the death of so many relatively young people on the same date.
The first successful launch of the R-16 missile only occurred in February of 1961, after almost a year of serious corrections and adjustments.