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Not Your Father’s World History Part 16:
“A massive explosion shook the earth...”

15 March 2006

Wilhelm HW Baade
Wilhelm HW Baade
His Discoveries Doubled the Size of the Known Universe

Curious Article No. 25:

Space program analyst James Oberg doesn’t buy the Ledovsky-Shiborin-Mitkov tale for an instant, though he’s helped bring to light other dire mishaps more solidly attested. Foremost among them were the Nedelin Disaster of October 24, 1960 and the fiery death of cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko on March 23, 1961.

In the first, a prototype booster called the R-16 was standing on the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Nikita Khrushchev had put the screws on Field Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin to get the launch off in time for the November 7th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but some alarming technical problems had cropped up over the past day or so. Though common sense demanded the test be called off and the booster drained of its corrosive nitric acid-based fuels, such a move would have cost serious delays which to Nedelin would have been unthinkable.

As launch preparations grew progressively more feverish, the second stage engines suddenly ignited on their own and burned into the first stage fuel tanks. A massive explosion shook the earth and shattered windows for miles. Many tried to flee but a chain-link fence trapped them. About a hundred died either instantly or soon thereafter from burns, including Nedelin and other brass and much of the country’s top rocketry talent. State-run papers chalked up Nedelin’s death to a plane crash and the world didn’t hear the truth until the 1990s.

Valentin Bondarenko
Valentin Bondarenko
In the second, it seems the twenty-four-year-old Bondarenko was training in a pressure chamber on the ground and at one point removed some sensors from his skin and cleaned off the conductive gel with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab. He then gave the swab an absent toss and it hit the element of a hotplate. Since he was surrounded by pure oxygen at relatively high pressure, an unstoppable fire engulfed his suit and everything else and burned him beyond recognition (literally — only his soles were spared). He died a few hours later, and in true Soviet fashion this event also was declared Top Secret.

Now the U.S. suffered its first major space-related tragedy on January 27, 1967, when astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee (who shared my small midwestern hometown) died under similar circumstances while training in an early Apollo mockup atop an unfueled booster. In their case it likely started from a spark in the wiring. The air was 100% oxygen at 16 PSI (110 kPa or a little over one atmosphere); they were wearing suits of rubber, plastic, and nylon; and many other materials in the cabin were similarly combustible or even explosive under those conditions. Had the Soviets said something back in 1961, NASA might well have re-thought some of its engineering decisions and history wouldn’t have had to repeat itself.

The Challenger disaster of 1986 also should have been preventable. When Soviet engineers first heard the U.S. Space Shuttle was going to use solid rocket boosters (SRBs) to supplement its main engines they were horrified, O-rings or no O-rings. SRBs are really nothing but giant skyrockets, which once lit cannot be throttled or extinguished and had never before been trusted to human payloads on either side of the Iron Curtain. Penny-wise/pound-foolish funding throughout the 1970s forced NASA to compromise on the Shuttle’s safety by, among other things, choosing SRBs instead of an all liquid-fueled propulsion because they required far less R & D.

After the accident NASA beefed up the O-ring joints but other performance and safety improvements on the SRBs, including an Air Force-inspired filament-wound one-piece design, fell to the budget axe. Including both Challenger and Columbia, the Space Shuttle death rate has been 2% per person per flight or about half that for those climbing Mount Everest.

Over steak and eggs before liftoff for the first moon landing NASA administrator Thomas Paine told astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins that they were to abort the mission if anything felt not quite right when they got there. Suspecting they’d ignore that advice with hardly a second thought, he made the unprecedented promise that all three of them would also fly the next Apollo mission if this one didn’t pan out.

As they waited on their backs for the countdown, Aldrin discovered for the first time that because planners had recently added a bulky pocket to Armstrong’s left suit leg, the slightest move could quite likely snag it on the abort handle which would fire the escape tower and whisk the command module away from the pad. Armstrong tried yanking the pocket to the right as hard as he could but it didn’t help. Of course as we all know Armstrong didn’t snag that handle, he and Aldrin didn’t run out of fuel on their lunar descent (though they easily could have), and the mission was a crowning success.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Since long before radio, H.G. Wells, Steven Spielberg, or Roswell, people have entertained the idea that we might well have company out there in space. Such a perspective is known as cosmic pluralism, as opposed to the conviction that we and our planet are favored and unique. Some of the earliest pluralists we know of were the classical Greek philosophers Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus. Flash forward another two millennia and you have John Milton, Benjamin Franklin, Immanuel Kant, Percy Shelley, Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman alluding to such beings.

How likely is it, really? Well, Hubble Telescope data supports in excess of 240,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe or about the number of drops of water in thirteen Olympic-sized swimming pools. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is a spiral-shaped affair containing a similar number of stars. About a third of those roughly resemble our sun in that they’re reasonably stable and long-lived. We’re learning that solar systems besides our own are commonplace. As of early March 2006 there were 181 confirmed extrasolar planets. So far the closest we know of is one circling the yellow-orange star Epsilon Eridani at 10.4 light years. Assuming that, say, a third of our galaxy’s sunlike stars have at least one rocky planet offering livable conditions, that’s 30,000,000,000 worlds. Even if only one out of every thousand of those harbors intelligent life, you still get 30 million. Plus extraterrestrials may also have set up shop on planets they’re not native to, or in artificial space habitats.

Baade photo: Olin Eggen Photo archive. AURA-O

Next: The Starchild and Another Cosmic Mystery
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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