Those questioning the ability of world governments to cover up events of a sensitive nature may be interested by a closer look at the events surrounding the Nedelin rocket explosion which claimed at least 126 people and may have claimed the lives of up to 150. Those questioning the ability of a government to keep such a massive incident secret should note that even now fifty years later the disaster is rarely spoken of due to a massive cover up. And even now on its fiftieth anniversary all but a few have forgotten the massive scar it leaves on space exploration. On this day we take an opportunity let the heroes be remembered and its dead not forgotten.
It was a cold October day in Moscow when news of Russia’s most advanced rocket – the rocket intended to one day take the first steps into space and allow mankind to stretch out among the stars – reached Nikita Kruschev. The disaster would not reach the western mainstream media until thirty years later when documents pertaining to the disaster would be declassified. With the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Union had the western world living in fear over its advanced space program. The embarrassment such a launch failure would cause would have been devastating to Russian military and scientific morale and significantly reduce the Kremlin’s ability to assert its superiority in space. The cover up is telling of the paranoia and posturing taking place on both sides of the cold war.
When the launch pad was being prepared to bring yet another surprise to the west, the ignition switch was triggered a matter of seconds early resulting in a fire that would sweep the launch pad and claim the lives of several top scientists and officials involved in the project including Mitrofan Nedelin, then commander of the R-16 rocket’s development program. It was partially due to the efforts of many of those killed in this tragic incident that ultimately would allow the Soviet Union to put Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok 1 to become the first man in space. Boris Konoplev would also lose his life as he monitored the rocket systems from a bus designed to wheel away just before the massive flames from the rocket were ignited.
After the incident, news of the occurrence would reach only a few independent periodicals and even then mostly by independent media sources. Nedelin’s official cause of death was listed as plane crash. A leak from Moscow would lead one newspaper agency in Italy, the Continentale, to the truth. Their report would be ridiculed and largely ignored before being vindicated officially almost 30 years later. The massive project and the identities of those who had died along with the circumstances of their deaths would remain a state secret for decades afterward. Zhores Medvedev, who tried to bring attention of the story to the public was dismissed largely as a crackpot conspiracy theorist.
The nature of the coverup was in the interest of protecting the Soviet Union from embarrassment and was largely considered a success. By the time Konoplev launched into space one year later the scar left behind from the Neddelin catastrophe would be bandaged in red tape and secrecy. And even now it is rarely mentioned in the history of the Soviet Union.