Saturday, October 25, 2008
Cold War Stories: Baykonur, Two Generations Ago
Gist: The victims of two accidents are being comemmorated in Baykonur. An R-16 ICBM (SS-7 Saddler) blew up during final preparations for launch 41 years ago, killing almost the entire development team headed by Mikhail Yangel'. By a tragic coincidence, exactly three years later a launch failure killed eight more.
This day is always a cold day in Baykonur, almost winter like, but everyone in the Baykonur space city comes to the memorial, which is a grave for 70 people killed during missile testing. The two tragedies took place on the same day, three years apart, in 1960 and 1963 and killed 132 people. It was the first test of the R-16 ICBM, called the "new nuclear shield against the potential enemy". At 1845, after failing to take off, the missile exploded. The second stage spontaneously activated. Seventy six people died in the fire immediately, among them the Commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin. The main designer Mikhail Yangel' miraculously survived. Information about the failures were kept secret for years. The dead were said to have simply died in the course of their official duties. Now at the cosmodrome there is evidence of the tragedy. There is now a memorial at launch site 41. Until the 90s, it simply wasn't possible to visit. The tragedy was only acknowledged at the cosmodrome 35 years after the fact. Since recognition in 1995, relatives of the victims have come to pay their respects. There is an eternal flame at the launch site. The wind blows so hard that the flame is almost extinguished and people have trouble standing. All missile and space activities stop on this day to remember.