Five cosmonauts have died while on missions. Their ashes are buried under the Kremlin wall along with ashes of other famous Russians. In April 1967, a Soyuz carrying cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov malfunctioned in space. During an early re-entry the parachute wrapped around the spacecraft. It crashed to earth, killing Komarov. The Soviets didn't launch another space craft for 18 months.

The Russians didn't pre test equipment as much as the Americans. They considered many tests to be too expensive. Instead they launched space craft and monitored their progress and learned from mistakes. Potentially dangerous mission utilized unmanned rather than manned vehicles. But over all the Russians lost fewer lives in their space program than the Americans.

At least three cosmonauts may have died before Gagarin’s flights in an effort to be the first to send a man into space. News came out in 2001 around the time of the 40th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight,. Three test pilots were reportedly launched into the outer atmosphere and died in missions in 1957, 1958 and 1959. Another Cosmonaut was burned to death in a fire in an experimental low-gravity chamber. In the worst space disaster on the ground, 92 people died when a R-16 rocket exploded during fueling at the Baikonur Space Center in October 1960.

James Oberg wrote in his book “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: “On June 30, 1971, the three cosmonauts of the Soyuz 1 1 crew perished on return to Earth. The USSR was plunged into national mourning, and eventually the fact of their deaths was turned to proof of the leading role of the Soviet Union on the space frontier (only stay-at-homes avoid the risk of dying). During the Apollo-Soyuz project Soviet engineers told their American colleagues about the air leak which caused three deaths, but such basic factual information has never been published in the Soviet media. It is enough for Soviet citizens to know they died gloriously. [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

Unsubstantiated Reports of Dead Cosmonauts

James Oberg wrote in “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: My own first major Soviet space history research project was undertaken i n 1972 and 1973, and it dealt specifically with the dead cosmonaut stories. What they lacked in quality they made up in quantity, and the sheer volume of the legends stampeded many specialists into concluding that at least perhaps a few of them were authentic.By 1973 I had compiled an imposing list of rumors about missing cosmonauts: [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

“1) Cosmonaut Ledovsky was killed in 1957 on a suborbital space hop from the Kapustin Yar rocket base on the Volga River. 2) Cosmonaut Shiborin died the following year the same way. 3) Cosmonaut Mitkov lost his life on a third attempt in 1959. 4) An unnamed cosmonaut was trapped in space in May 1960, when his orbiting space capsule headed in the wrong direction. 4) In late September 1960, while Khrushchev pounded his shoe at the United Nations, another cosmonaut (sometimes identified as Pyotr Dolgov) was killed when his rocket blew up on the launchpad. -

“5) On February 4, 1961, a mystery Soviet satellite was heard to be transmitting heartbeats, which soon stopped (some reports even described it as a two-man capsule, and several "missing cosmonauts" were listed as Belokonev, Kachur, and Grachev). 6) Early in April 1961 Russian pilot Vladimir Ilyushin circled the earth three times but was badly injured on his return. 7) In mid-May 1961 weak calls for help were picked up in Europe, evidently from an orbiting spacecraft with two cosmonauts aboard. 8) On October 14, 1961, a multiman Soviet spacecraft was knocked off course by a solar flare and vanished into deep space . 9) Radio trackers in Italy detected a fatal space mission in November 1962, and some believe that a cosmonaut named Belokonev died at that time. -

“10) An attempt to launch a second woman into space ended tragically on November 19, 1963. 11) One or more cosmonauts were killed during an unsuccessful space mission in April 1964, according to radio intercepts by Italian shortwave listeners. 12) Following the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 which killed three American astronauts, U.S. intelligence sources reportedly described five fatal Soviet spaceflights and six fatal ground accident. -

“In January 1970 cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev became the first spaceman to die of natural causes. He had reportedly been the lead pilot for a Soviet manned moon shot that was eventually canceled. The official cause of death was peritonitis following surgery for a bleeding ulcer. No explanation was ever offered for how such a simple operation could have gone so wrong for such a hero.” -

Tragic Burning Death of Cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko

On March 23, 1961, 20 days before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, a young Cosmonaut trainee, Valentin Bondarenko, died of severe burns after an accident in a pressure chamber. A 1986 article by Russia's leading space journalist Yaroslav Golovanov in Irvestiya revealed his fate, which had been kept secret until then. "Valentin was the youngest of the first batch of cosmonauts (he was 24 years old)," Golovanov wrote. [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

James Oberg wrote in “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”:“Bondarenko had been undergoing routine training in a pressure chamber, which was part of a ten-day isolation exercise. At the very end of the exercise he made a trivial but fatal mistake. "After medical tests," explained Golovanov's article, "Bondarenko removed the sensors attached to him, cleaned the spots where they had been attached with cotton wool soaked in alcohol, and without looking threw away the cotton wool — which landed on the ring of an electric hot plate. In the oxygen-charged atmosphere the flames immediately filled the small space of the chamber. -

“Under such a condition of high oxygen concentration, normally nonflammable substances can burn vigorously. The cosmonaut's training suit caught fire. Unaccustomed to the vigor of high-oxygen fires, Bondarenko would only have spread the flames further by attempting to smother them.When the doctor on duty noticed the conflagration through a porthole, he rushed to the hatch, which he could not open because the internal pressure kept it sealed. Releasing the pressure through bleed valves took at least several minutes. And for ail that time Bondarenko was engulfed in flames. "When Valentin was dragged out of the pressure chamber," continued Golovanov's account, "he was still conscious and kept repeating,'It was my fault, no one else is to blame....' " He died eight hours later from the shock of the burns. -

“In 1984 St. Martin's Press published a book, entitled "Russian Doctor", by the Russian emigre surgeon Dr. Vladimir Golyakhovsky. He described the death of a cosmonaut trainee in a pressure chamber fire. Half an entire chapter was devoted to the incident — and with authority — since, incredibly, Golyakhovsky (a specialized surgeon-traumatologist) had apparently been the emergency room doctor at the prestigious Botkin Hospital when the dying cosmonaut was brought in. As Golyakhovsky remembered it, a severely burned man identified only as "Sergeyev, a 24-year-old Air Force Lieutenant," was brought in by stretcher. "I couldn't help shuddering," Golyakhovsky recalled. "The whole of him was burnt. The body was totally denuded of skin, the head of hair; there were no eyes in the face. ... It was a total burn of the severest degree. But the patient was alive...." Golyakhovsky saw the man's mouth moving and bent down to listen. "Too much pain — do something, please — to kill the pain" were the tortured words he could make out. -

"Sergeyev" was scorched everywhere but the soles of his feet, where his flight boots had offered some protection from the flames. With great dimculty the doctors inserted intravenous lines into his feet (they couldn't find blood vessels anywhere else) and administered painkillers and medication. "Unfortunately, Sergeyev was doomed," Golyakhovsky remembered realizing immediately. "And yet, all of us were eager to do something, anything, to alleviate his terrible suffering." The man lingered for sixteen hours before dying. -

“Afterward Golyakhovsky reported talking with a small young officer who had waited by the phone in the lobby while the burned man lay dying. The doctor requested and received an account of the original accident. Details included "an altitude chamber... heavily laden with oxygen" and "a small electric stove [with] ... a rag burst[ingl into flame." Golyakhovsky was also told that it had taken half an hour to get the pressure chamber open, with "Sergeyev" on fire until the flames consumed almost all the oxygen inside the room.” -

Bondarenko “was buried in Kharkov, in the Ukraine, where he had grown up and where his parents still lived. He left a young widow, Anya, and a five-year-old son, Aleksandr ("Sasha"). Anya remained at the cosmonaut center in an undisclosed job. When he grew up, young Aleksandr became an air force officer.” -

Suicide of Cosmonaut Grigoriy Nelyubov

James Oberg wrote in “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: “For decades nobody outside the cosmonaut program knew about Grigoriy Nelyubov. He had been an egotistical young jet pilot. Despite such a character flaw, his academic and flying skills were so impressive that he had been the favorite candidate of several top officials for the honor and glory of humankind's first flight into space. Failing that, he was considered certain to receive one of the next spaceflight assignments following Yuriy Gagarin's pioneering mission in 1961. [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

“But late that year Nelyubov and two other cosmonaut trainees were returning from a weekend pass when they got into some sort of altercation with an army patrol at a train station. Blows may have been exchanged when they were unable to bluff their way through a checkpoint for which they didn't have proper credentials. The three, who may also have been drunk, were subdued and placed under guard in the station duty officer's office. It was quickly established that they were indeed cosmonauts, as they claimed, and the military security officials were willing to forget the whole thing. One officer, however, insisted that the cosmonauts apologize to the patrol members (suggesting that the cosmonauts had come out ahead in the brawl before being overwhelmed). Nelyubov's two colleagues readily agreed. -

“Nelyubov, however, refused to apologize. He was, after all, soon to become his nation's third or fourth man in orbit, and he demanded respect and subservience from his captors. Lacking this simple gesture of reconciliation, the duty officer filed his report. It quickly reached the cosmonaut corps commander, an old air force veteran named Nikolay Kamanin, who became incensed at his men's all-too-public irresponsibility. In response, Kamanin expelled the three from the cosmonaut corps. Their space careers were aborted; they went back to flying jets in Siberia. -

“The other cosmonauts were as aghast at the severity of the punishment as they were outraged at Nelyubov's conceited intransigence. He wouldn't be missed, but the other two men (second-string space trainees named Ivan Anikeyev and Valentin Filatyev) had been very popular. "They burned down in concert" was the Russian figure of speech for Nelyubov's taking his well-liked buddies down in flames with him. -

“Nelyubov was transferred to an interceptor squadron based near Vladivostok, where he bragged to everyone that he had once been a cosmonaut. He was embittered that few believed him. Then he watched his colleagues one by one go into orbit, to fame and glory: first, the rest of his equals among the Sochi Six (Nikolayev, Popovich, Bykovsky in 1962 and 1963); next, some of the second team, whom he had already outranked (Komarov in 1964 and Leonov the following year); then, also in 1964, men he didn't even know (Feoktistov and Yegorov), who had not even been cosmonauts when he was expelled. -

“Sinking deeper into depression and alcoholism, he experienced "a crisis of soul," as a Russian journalist tactfully put it. In the predawn hours of February 18, 1966, while drunk, he stepped in front of a train near the Ippolitovka station, northwest of Vladivostok, and was killed. Whether it was intentional or accidental, nobody could tell.” This story was revealed in a April 1986 article by Golovano published in Izvestzya

Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov Killed by Insufficient Testing?

James Oberg wrote in “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: “In April 1967 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when the parachute of his Soyuz 1 spacecraft failed during the return to Earth. Although the Soviet press deified Komarov's sacrifice, the full story behind the disaster was never reported. It involved intense Kremlin pressure for overambitious plans to reclaim the lost Soviet lead in the "space race." [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

“Years later Victor Yevsikov, a Russian engineer who had helped develop the Soyuz heat shield, emigrated to America. Once here, he wrote a memoir of that period. He recalled: "Some launches were made almost exclusively for propaganda purposes. An example, timed to celebrate international solidarity, was the ill-fated flight of Vladimir Komarov in Soyuz 1. ... The management of the Design Bureau knew that the vehicle had not been completely debugged; more time was needed to make it operational. But the Communist Party ordered the launch despite the fact that four preliminary launches had revealed faults in the coordination, thermal control, and parachute systems. ... None of the tests were successful. During the first test flight the heat shield burned during descent. This was due to a defect in the stopper in the frontal shield, where the module had been mounted on the lathe for machining. The module was thoroughly damaged. The three other failures had different causes. Malfunctions in those test flights were due to a breakdown in the temperature control system, malfunctioning of the automatic controls of the attitude controljets, and burning of the parachute shroud lines [by the pyrotechnic ejection system]. In those cases, the head shield served well. -

“Understandably these failures were never disclosed to the Soviet public. Neither was the Kremlin responsibility for the decision to launch Komarov's doomed mission prematurely. "It was rumored that Vasily Mishin, the deputy chief designer who headed the enterprise after Korolev's death in 1966, had objected to the launch," Yevsikov wrote, referring to the politics-inspired decision. "The flight had taken place despite Mishin's refusal to sign the flight endorsement papers for the Soyuz re-entry vehicle, which he had considered unready." -

“Komarov's death has attracted its share of rumors, and the most gruesome is that his death screams were recorded by American monitoring stations. According to this account, he knew while still in orbit that he was doomed and took part in a series of tear-jerking conversations with his wife, with Premier Aleksey Kosygin, and with his associates in the space program. As he began his death dive back to Earth, he reported rising temperatures, then began screaming. -

“It is difficult to reconcile these accounts with what is reliably known about the Soyuz 1 space disaster. According to Yevsikov, major problems struck the spaceship almost immediately; at one point, an angry Komarov raged, "Devil-machine, nothing I lay my hands on works!" While he did have trouble orienting his craft for reentry, he eventually succeeded. And his descent crossed far northwestern regions of Soviet territory not normally covered by American space-tracking facilities likely to overhear him. A fouled parachute, which was the official Soviet explanation, would probably not have been noticeable to the pilot; alternately, disintegrating on reentry would have occurred during the normal "blackout" period when all radio communications are normally cut off. The "death screams" rumor just doesn't seem credible.” -

Close Calls for Cosmonauts

The "Orbits of Courage" series in Soviet newspapers provided details about what happened in some close calls and near tragedies involving Soviet cosmonauts. In the first article Vasily Lazarev recounted what happened after his Soyuz 18-1 booster malfunctioned, his mission was abborted and his capsule skidded down a mountainside near the Chinese border in Mongolia.

James Oberg wrote in “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: On April 5, 1975, two cosmonauts were dumped onto the Altai Mountains in the world's first manned space launch abort. Pilot Vasily Lazarev and flight eng;ineer Oleg Makarov survived a harrowing 20 G descent and then a bouncing ride down a mountainside before their spacecraft came to a safe stop. They came as close to dying as anyone can and later talk about it. Privately Soviet engineers told American colleagues that explosive separation bolts between the second and third stages had been miswired. For many years the Soviet public was left in the dark about these details.” [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

“In the second article flight director Viktor Blagov gave a detailed account of the suspenseful Soyuz 33 mission in the spring of 1979, when a two-man spaceship was nearly stranded in orbit. The spaceship's main engine exploded, and specialists feared that it had damaged the emergency engine as well. Russian cosmonaut Nikolay Rukavishnikov was the first nonpilot to command a Soviet space mission, and he had a poorly trained Bulgarian guest named Georgiy Ivanov along as a copilot, for diplomatic purposes. Ivanov's most valuable suggestion, as it turned out, was that they break out the cognac they were carrying as part of the cargo to the space station they now could never reach. "I had a very little," Rukavishnikov recalled, "and Georgiy had a good drink." -

“In the third installment...three-time space veteran Vladimir Shatalov, chief of the cosmonauts, reflected on how training helps cosmonauts prepare for emergencies. He recounted the landing control problems on Voskhod 2 in 1965 and the emergency unexpected splashdown of the two-man Soyuz 23 on a salt lake in Central Asia in 1976. He also disclosed the hitherto unknown fact that he himself had been waiting inside Soyuz 4 in 1969 when the launch was scrubbed and rescheduled. This happens fairly often in the American program, and the Soviet press always makes fun of such delays; but it never had admitted to having had any experience like it until this article. -

“The fourth installment was by cosmonaut Vladimir Titov, who described in detail the failure of his Soyuz T-8 to dock with the Salyut 7 space station. He and two crewmates had been launched only a few days after the publication of the preceding article. Upon their return a flood of letters from readers suggested that the cosmonauts be invited to tell their whole story in the same forum, and they subsequently did. The spaceship's radar boom had jammed, and without it they could not measure their position and speed relative to their target. "What we encountered in the actual flight was nothing like any of the unplanned situations known to us," Titov admitted in the article. An alternate procedure was developed overnight ("Nowwe were moving onto a completely untrodden path," Titov recalled thinking), but when tried, it did not work. "Velocity still seems quite high," the cosmonaut thought. "This is dangerous. Perhaps we will collide. I burn the engine to take the vehicle downwards. We are flying past the station. And so we failed to dock." Titov summarized in the uncharacteristically forthright report: "This experience in orbit was a difficult one." -

“Early in 1984 a lengthy article in Literaturnaya Gazeta provided even more graphic details of the emergency nighttime splashdown of two cosmonauts eight years earlier. During their hours on the icy lake the men were in grave danger of suffocation, drowning, or freezing, as extremely difficult weather conditions kept rescue helicopters from reaching them. All this drama and courage were barely hinted at back in 1976, when the splashdown had actually occurred. -

“Several dramatic space events never got mentioned in this period — the most dangerous being the Soyuz-5 landing in 1969 when the service module failed to detach from the command module, which then entered front forward and began burning up. Only at the last possible moment did the modules separate and the heat shield turn into the 10,000 degree heat pulse.” -

Sleuthing the Fate of Unaccounted-For Cosmonauts

James Oberg wrote in “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: The Russians had always presented their march to space as a smooth road to glory, the outgrowth of sound planning and monolithic support. The Soviets' traditional practice of boasting, covering up, lying, and retouching aspects of their own history made most Western observers doubt this rosy image. Contradictory information came out in bits and pieces, sometimes suggesting a picture worse than it was. Golovanov's articles in 1986... were the first tentative attempt to set part of the record of the past straight. And there was such a lot to set straight by then. Even before the first announced Soviet spaceman blasted off in 1961, rumors reached the West about the existence of secret graves of anonymous dead cosmonauts, killed on unannounced missions. Moscow vigorously denied them all, to no effect. Lists of dozens of dead cosmonauts circulated in the Western press for many years. The Soviets denounced the originators of such material as "enemies." [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176 -]

“In 1972 and 1973 I had reviewed frame by frame a number of early 1960s Soviet newsreel releases on the cosmonaut program and found at least half a dozen unidentified faces among the obvious trainees. It was unlikely these men were still around, waiting their turns, since the last man from that original class had flown in space in 1969. Some of these faces also appeared in group photographs newly released in 1971 and 1972 in honor of the tenth anniversary of Gagarin's flight...In 1973 I was astonished to discover different versions of some of these group photographs. Certain faces were air-brushed out of photographs in books published inside the USSR although these "nonpersons" still remained in the same pictures used in Soviet books published for non-Soviet readers. -

“The most notorious photo-doctored set was the one showing the so-called Sochi Six, including the doomed Grigoriy Nelyubov...Several years later British researcher Rex Hall found two different versions of yet another group picture from that same day; that shot had included all sixteen active cosmonauts in one version, but only eleven in the other. Nelyubov was one of the deleted ones, along with his partners in eviction, Ivan Anikeyev and Valentin Filatyev, plus two other future failed cosmonauts, Mars Rafikov and Dmitriy Zaikin, and a parachute instructor named Nikitin, who later was killed on a jump. -

“These "missing cosmonaut" faces were originally unidentified, so for convenient reference I labeled them with the code names XI, X2, up to X9. Photographs of many of these men had been published with my articles as early as 1973. The one fgure I had designated X2 appeared to be special...In 1986, when Bondarenko's photograph appeared in Izvestiya, I went back and checked my X series photographs of the unaccounted-for early cosmonaut trainees. One of them, whom I had labeled "X7," almost certainly was the doomed pilot Bondarenko. -

“Chief cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov, on a visit to Houston for Apollo-Soyuz mission planning in 1973, who told his American counterparts that "six or eight" trainees had died. One of the women members of the 1973 Soviet delegation to NASA told her American contacts that she was the widow of cosmonaut trainee Anatoliy Tokov, a former test pilot, who died in 1967 while in training for a spaceflight. In the mid-1960s there were credible reports of one parachute jump fatality and at least one automobile accident fatality (the same source fairly accurately claimed that several trainees had been expelled for participating in a drunken party — probably a reference to the Nelyubov scandal). So there apparently are many more names and many more young men whose sacrifices have not earned their memories the honor they deserve. -

“When author Michael Cassutt, researching a book on cosmonauts, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, on "cosmonaut training fatalities between 1960 and 1975" to the CIA, he received a curiously suggestive reply. His request for release of such documents was denied, but to aid him in his expected appeal, the CIA told him the dates of nine documents which fitted the description in his request. There had been one report on April 6, 1965 (soon after the Voskhod 2 space walk), three at the time of the Soyuz 1 tragedy in April 1967 and two others later that same year, and three more in the 1973-1975 period (possibly dealing with revelations during Apollo-Soyuz meetings). The existence of such documents certainly suggests the additional existence of reports of training fatalities, but further speculation is useless until the full reports are declassified. -

Rocket Explosion at Baikonur in 1960 Kills 92

The worst space disaster on the ground took place at the Baikonur Space Center in October 1960 when a R-16 rocket exploded during fueling and killed at least 92 people. According to Tengri News: The “horrific rocket explosion occurred “when a prototype rocket exploded on the launch pad and released the highly poisonous rocket fuel in the air dubbed the "devil's venom". During the accident, which the Russian space agency has called a veritable "inferno", 126 people were burned alive or vaporised altogether, while others died of noxious fumes or succumbed to burns later. The Soviet Union, which was locked in an arms race with the United States, imposed total secrecy over the disaster, and the files were only declassified in the 1990s.” [Source: Tengri News, July 2, 2013 +++]

According to “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. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“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.”

“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.” A total of 49 survivors were delivered to the hospital and placed under intensive care. Sixteen of them would die within several months.

A commission that investigated the disaster “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!

Events Before the Rocket Explosion at Baikonur in 1960

According to “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. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“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. 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.

Close Call the Day Before the Rocket Explosion at Baikonur

According to “ 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. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“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. 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.

Events of the Day of the Baikonur Rocket Explosion

According to “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. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“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.

“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. 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.

“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." 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.

“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. 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. 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 directed the flame away from him.”

Counting the Dead After the 1960 Baikonur Rocket Explosion

According to “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." [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

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. 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.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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