Return in previous page
Contents of book

8.3.1 Causes of the Disaster

Obviously, the oscillations described in the previous section were not limited to those engines designed at the Glushko 0KB. When they occurred in ICBM engines, however, statistics revealed that in the case of Glushko's engines, they usually lead to complete destruction of the engine and rocket because of their extreme power. The turbopump units that impelled the fuel into the combustion-chamber and nozzle cooling system sometimes developed tens of thousands of horsepower, and the pressure in the system reached several hundred atmospheres.

Scientists at TsIAM provided several theories to explain the accident, but none of these provided an acceptable explanation. Next, it was suggested that the oscillations had been caused by low air temperature. Indeed, on the day of launch, the temperature was about -32 degrees Celsius.
Results of previous ground based ignition tests of the engines were re-examined. It was found that the engine had passed ignition tests with the ambient temperature at 40', 30', 20', 10°,0°, -10', -20' C, and at -40° C. But for unknown reasons there had been no tests at -30° C.
An RD-253 engine was immediately mounted on a bench and tested at -30° C. The whole engine disintegrated as a result of the oscillations. A repeat of the test produced the same results.

8.3.2 Political and Military Response to the Accident

Most Soviet strategic nuclear missiles were stationed in Siberia in the northern part of the country where temperatures of -30° C were common during the winter months. It is clear, then, why the political and military leadership were very concerned about the results of the accident and the subsequent testing. The threat of an explosion with an active warhead was particularly worrisome.

The political and military response to the accident was evident in the number of conferences and briefings that were subsequently convened. Ominous top-priority and super-top-priority orders and instructions showered down to correct the defect. While the accident led to many attempts to ascertain its causes, the KGB sought to conceal the accident from the Americans who could
potentially exploit this 'low temperature' weakness.

8.3.3 Solution of the Problem

The involved engines could not be replaced since no existing engine design was appropriate for the missiles. In addition, the design of a new engine would involve exorbitant costs in time and resources. Rebasing the missiles in underground silos had just begun although the silos turned out to be more costly than the missiles themselves. The new threat required that the silos be heated, which further added to their cost. Building the silos would take several years, and the military leadership demanded that steps be taken immediately.

It is well known that the oscillations in the liquid-propellant engines depend on the power of the turbopumps, the configuration of the cooling channels, and on the heat transfer. The first two factors could be affected by changing the design of the engine, which was difficult, and above all would require a great deal of time.

The third factor which involved heat transfer from the incandescent exhaust gases to the walls of the engine, could be affected by changing the wall material (i.e. changing the heat transfer coefficient) . All of this would have to be done in an existing engine without removing it from the missile. For this purpose, it was suggested that a layer of iridium be sprayed onto the inner surface of the nozzle.

Ignition tests of the engine with the iridium coating at -30° C were successful. Plasma devices for applying the iridium were readied on an emergency basis and sent to military bases. The procedure at the bases involved opening the nozzle cover, cleaning the interior surface, and applying a layer of iridium to it by plasma spraying. Iridium was extremely costly, much more so than gold, but its use received top priority. The author believes that the iridium was not a genuine solution, but only a temporary means to prevent oscillations in the engines. When the author mentioned such reservations to his superior, V. Solovyev (Chief of Research Dept.) at the Glushko 0KB, the latter responded that the temperature interval had been shifted in an unknown direction.

But the fact remains that the main objective was to achieve stable operation of the engines at -30° C and to alleviate the fears of the military leadership and the Central Committee.

8.4 The Soviet Lunar Program

The Soviet lunar program may be divided into two stages: the first involved a flight around the moon and the second was to be a manned landing. Vasily Mishin led the lunar effort as General Designer of the Korolev Design Bureau in Podlipki, having replaced Korolev after the his death in 1966.

The Soviet lunar program differed from the American program in that the former planned to have two cosmonauts travel to the moon rather than three. One cosmonaut was to remain in lunar orbit while the other would descend to the moon's surface.

For the flight around the moon, the L-l lunar vehicle was to be used (33). The L-l was a modified version of the Soyuz vehicle which had successfully completed flights around the earth. The L-1 was to be launched by a Proton rocket which had a payload of 20 tons.
- - - - - - - - - - -
(33) The L-l was later renamed the Zond.
- - - - - - - -

At the same time, the N-l rocket and the L-3 lunar vehicle were under development by Korolev. The first launch attempt failed. To accelerate the lunar vehicle to the escape velocity (11 tan/second), an additional stage (unit D) was installed on the Proton rocket. During installation, however, its command switches were miswired so that deceleration rather than acceleration was produced. The rocket had to be blown up. In the third launch, the rocket collapsed and exploded on the launch pad. The cause turned out to be a rubber seal left in the manifold of the turbopump unit which had cut off the fuel supply a few seconds after launch. Thereafter, major malfunctions occurred in half of the launches of which nothing was publicized.

At the same time, 20 candidates were being trained for the lunar program. The first two-man lunar crews consisted of cosmonauts Leonov and Makarov, and Bykovsky and Rukavishnikov. In fact, the cosmonauts were even taken to Somalia in order to familiarize them with the constellations of the Southern hemisphere. The furious pace on which the Soviet lunar program embarked caused a variety of problems. On its last unmanned flight, the vehicle successfully orbited the moon, but on its return to the earth its parachute system did not operate properly .causing it to detached at a great height and fall to the ground in pieces. The film taken of the far side of the moon was retrieved from the wreckage and was used by Soviet politicians to claim a successful mission.

After US Apollo 8, Mishin gained permission for one additional unmanned test flight, but the spacecraft suffered a loss of air-tightness during the flight, making it a failure.

The second stage of the lunar program was also fraught with difficulties. The first three launches of the N-l rocket, which were designed to carry cosmonauts to the moon, ended in crashes. The program was suspended although work continued on a Lunokhod vehicle which would not require a carrier rocket and would move around the moon and transmit pictures.

8.5 The Nedelin Disaster

In October 1960 there occurred an explosion that the lives of as many as 250 leading scientist, engineers, and high-level military leaders. Among the casualties was the Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces. Chief Marshal of Artillery Metrofan I. Nedelin. The disaster also resulted in great material loss, destroying a large part of the launch complex.

Annually, the Strategic Rocket Forces performed full tests of strategic missiles, i.e., one or two missiles would be chosen at random from the full arsenal at the batteries and then launch them under simulated war-time conditions. The rocket could not, however, be fired directly from the battery since the launches of large rockets could be easily detected by the western nations. Therefore, a randomly selected rocket was removed from its battery, its nuclear warheads were taken off, and it was transported to the Baikonur space launch facility. On a combat alert signal, it was launched to a specified target location, usually in the Pacific Ocean. Tests of its accuracy, systems operations, and launch time estimations were conducted. These tests were generally monitored by the top military leadership (Chief Main Department of the Strategic Missile of the Minoborony) and by representatives of the institutes and plants that produced the rockets and their components.

At the launch attended by Marshal Nedelin, a check of the systems revealed that the propellant pumps were malfunctioning. The countdown was terminated and Nedelin was informed that in order to replace the pumps, it would be necessary to drain all of the fuel and oxidizer from the tanks—a standard safety precaution that would last several hours. Reportedly, Nedelin became furious and shouted that such precautions wasted time and would not be available during combat. He then ordered that the pumps be replaced without draining the fuel.

A slight leakage of propellant (UDMH and nitric acid) acted as a primer for the rocket which was the equivalent of several hundred tons of high explosive. The resulting explosion sprayed propellant over hundreds of meters and an enormous flame rose over the complex destroyed the majority of the complex 1 A large number of scientists perished as did Nedelin and his entourage despite the - fact that the newspapers reported only that Nedelin and several top officers had died in an air accident.

8.6 Other Rocket Failures

Most rocket failures in the USSR became known only within small circles. The press was allowed to report only successes. In addition. Soviet propaganda ignored the successful launches of US rockets and constantly publicized their failures. Even in the mid-1960s, when the Soviets had some of their greatest successes, the percentage of Soviet launch failures was considerably higher than that of the Americans.

Since it was never certain that a mission was a success until it was complete, press reports were often held until the spacecraft had safely returned to earth. Even Gagarin's flight in 1961, which was directed by Korolev, was reported only after the reentry system was shown to be functional. Gagarin's flight was the first of six missions between 1961-63.
The Vostok 6 carried the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova. The Vostok program paved the way for longer missions. The Voshkhod program (1964-65) consisted of only two flights. The first of these involved the first multiple crew (Komarov, K.P. Feoktistov and B.B. Yegorov) in October 1964 which was a one-day flight that orbited the earth 10 times at a speed of 700,000 km/hr.

The second flight demonstrated the feasibility of extravehicular activity (EVA). Aleksei Leonov became the first man to make an EVA in March 1965. From then until 1967, there were no Soviet piloted space flights, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was apparently engaged in a race to the moon with the United States.

On a separate flight, three other Soviet cosmonauts died when their cabin lost pressurization,during the descentycausing them to suffocate. G.T. Dobrovolsky, V.N. Volkov, and V.I. Patsayev were launched into orbit in June 1971 on the Soyuz 11 and were in space for more than 23 days before their demise.1 After the deaths of the three cosmonauts, it became obligatory for all Soviet cosmonauts to wear space suits and be trained to turn on their oxygen supply systems.

8.6.1 Pre-Sputnik Failures

Soviet rocket failures were common occurrences during the 1950s and 1960s. According to one account related to the author by a colleague who worked at the Korolev 0KB, the successful launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was preceded by 6 failures. After Korolev's department was separated from RNII as a separate design bureau, Korolev was allocated seven military rockets (types not known) adapted for satellite launch ings.

After the sixth unsuccessful launch, it was decided to terminate the attempts and to close the 0KB. Reportedly, the decision to shutdown was ordered by the political leadership, but Korolev disobeyed the order and made a last desperate attempt which resulted in the success of Sputnik.
Despite the obstacles, the Soviet leaders used this satellite launch to demonstrate Soviet superiority in the early space race. Needless to say, the idea of closing Korolev's 0KB was dropped and from that time on, Korolev was allocated practically unlimited resources. Sputnik, of course, led to later successes including the first manned flight, the first female cosmonaut, the first manned mission to outer space, and others.

Actually, the Khrushchev period in space may be characterized as one that devoted little attention to formulating scientific objectives and developing sophisticated instruments. Instead, the program was evaluated in military terms.

8.6.2 The Death of Cosmonaut Komarov

The author asserts that the only failures that became known were those that were simply impossible to cover up. One example was the flight by V.M. Komarov whose successful launch aboard the Soyuz-1 in 1967 was reported by Soviet radio. This was the first test flight of the Soyuz class. Komarov's return was anxiously anticipated by the Soviet public, with television coverage of the arrival planned. The outcome, however, was quite different and the account leading to the disaster was related to the author by a colleague at the involved 0KB.

Brezhnev was anxious to expedite Komarov's flight so that he could cite its progress at the conference of communist parties in 1967. Sergei Korolev, with his considerable public renown, could have stood up to such demands and forbidden the flight until he was sure that all of the systems were working properly. But Mishin, who had become the head of the 0KB after Korolev's death in 1966, yielded to Brezhnev's demands. The rocket and the new Soyuz-1 space vehicle were hastily prepared for launch. The first test, however, revealed more than 100 malfunctions. Another cosmonaut than Komarov was scheduled to fly; but after the malfunctions were reported, his blood pressure went up and the doctors forbade him to fly. Mishin persuaded Komarov to fly, since he was the most technically skilled and best trained cosmonaut, with prior experience in space flight.

Komarov finally agreed and on 23 April 1967, the space vehicle was put into orbit. There were so many malfunctions with the spacecraft, however, that after a day the vehicle was forced to make an emergency descent. Despite all the malfunctions, Komarov managed to control the craft and bring it into its reentry trajectory. Komarov's skill, however, was not enough to overcome all the malfunctions that had occurred.

When Komarov gave the command to deploy the main parachute, it ejected but failed to open. Komarov gave the command to deploy the reserve parachute, which ejected normally but became wound around the first parachute's suspension lines. This caused the reserve parachute to collapse, thus depriving Komarov of any chance for survival.
Contents of book
Contents of the main page
Aport Ranker