Just so you know, while NASA has had its horrible accidents, it is far from the only space program to have had them. And it IS the safest, hands down. There is nothing wrong with NASA that I have not seen in other big institutions, whether private enterprise or government agency. And while terrible, Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia all put together don't equal some of the space program disasters that other nations have had.
Travis S. Taylor and I wrote this book that came out in late 2012, called A New American Space Plan. It's about what we should be doing to get back on track for the stars. The reason I bring it up is because I already chronicled said disasters in it, and with the permission of Baen Books, the publisher, I'm going to excerpt Space Plan here with respect to those disasters.
First up, let's talk about the Soviet space program. Yes, I know the USSR doesn't exist any more, but the space program the Russians have is founded upon that started by the USSR. Here we go!
The Russian space program can be traced back to at least the early part of the twentieth century, when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a contemporary of America’s Robert Goddard, proposed the notion that space flight was possible and began developing the modern science of rocketry. This was furthered by the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, or “GIRD,” as it worked out in Cyrillic. This group contained, among others, Sergei Korolev, who would eventually wind up becoming one of the Soviet’s premier rocket scientists. In 1933 this Soviet team launched their first liquid fueled rocket, the GIRD-09, and a few months later, the hybrid fueld GIRD-X. It seemed Soviet rocketry was off to a great start.
It received a grave setback during the Stalin era, however. Stalin’s Great Purge killed or imprisoned most rocket scientists of the day. It targeted the intelligentsia and professionals, among others, as presumably a threat to the Communist Party. Those who were not executed by firing squad were sent to the gulags. Many of the stories bear resemblances to atrocities being carried out at the same time but a little farther west. The only developments in the field of any significance occurred during World War II with the invention of the Katyusha multiple rocket launcher.
It was that “little farther west” that proved the reinvigoration of the Soviet space program, however. At the end of World War II, not all of Wernher von Braun’s team ended up in the United States. He had purposely split his team in hopes that one or the other might make it to a safe haven with the Allies. The other group ended up with the Soviets, who looked over what von Braun’s team had wrought at Peenemunde and were impressed.
Once in their new home in the Soviet Union, the German rocket scientists set to work helping the Soviets replicate the V-2. This Russian version was dubbed the R-1. But it was not powerful enough to carry the large, heavy nuclear warheads of the day—which was the principal Soviet concern at the time. What the Russians wanted was a true intercontinental ballistic missile. That was always the whole point of their rocket program, as it turned out.
Nevertheless, the dreamers still got the dregs of the military’s desire. Somehow having managed to survive internment in a gulag during the Purge, Korolev came out on top as one of the principal designers. But he had his enemies; the Soviet space program, unlike the American one, was not centralized, and there was much internal competition...In short order, the USSR began making reasonably regular launches. Oddly enough, it has in recent years been determined that Kruschev had no particular interest in the space program. It was not a high political priority, he did not desire to compete with the Americans to the moon, and he saw its only benefit as propagandistic. Nevertheless the “propagandistic” program kept bringing home world firsts. In 1959, no less than three lunar probes were launched: Luna I, II, and III. These were, respectively, a flyby, an impactor, and a single slingshot orbit around the moon that returned the first images of the lunar far side. And in 1960 they returned living dogs from Earth orbit.
But 1960 also saw possibly their greatest space disaster. It is commonly known as the Nedelin catastrophe after the manager who oversaw it. Some say he was cocky. Some say he ordered his subordinates into fatal position. It is likely that we will never know because there was only one survivor of this disaster.
In October 1960, a launch pad test for a prototype of the R-16 ICBM was in preparation. This test was overseen by Soviet Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin. The rocket was on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and fully fueled with what they called “Devil’s Venom,” a particularly nasty hypergolic fuel system consisting of unsymmetrical dimethyhydrazine (UDMH) and nitric acid. The fuel mix is highly corrosive and toxic, but extremely powerful. However, even its exhaust is poisonous, and the nitric acid cannot be in the oxidizer tank for more than two days without eating through the tank.
It was the very nature of Devil’s Venom, it seems, that led to the disaster. Late on the day before the test, the technicians preparing the rocket accidentally breached a line from the fuel tank, allowing a small amount of fuel into the combustion chamber. This in itself was not dangerous. So rather than go through weeks of untanking, repair, rebuilding the engine, and refitting, the decision was made to move up the launch to the next day. Meanwhile Nedelin notified many military and political dignitaries of the upcoming launch, in case they wanted to watch—and who doesn’t want to watch a rocket launch?
Then on October 24th, engineers, scientists and technicians rushed to complete launch preparation, often performing tasks simultaneously rather than sequentially per checklist. The result was a delay. Nedelin, impatient and perhaps embarrassed, left the dignitaries at the observation stand and went to oversee the final preparation. Word has it he even brought a chair to sit down beside the launch pad.
For reasons unknown—or unreleased—the second stage engines fired prematurely. The flames acted as a blowtorch on the hypergolic tanks in the first stage, cutting through them. As soon as the UDMH and the nitric acid combined, as is the nature of hypergolic fuels, they self-ignited. The resulting explosion cremated everyone near the pad.
Those farther away were burned to death; those who had run away encountered the perimeter fence and were either burned or poisoned by the fumes. The entire horrific debacle was captured on film for posterity by automated cameras. Only one man survived—Mikhail Yangel, an associate (and competitor) of Korolev’s, and that only because he left the viewing area and went into a bunker to smoke a cigarette. He had been the military’s rocket engine designer and a proponent of hypergolic fuels. After this he was directed to concentrate strictly on ICBM design.
More next week.