Trump, Kim, and the Nedelin Disaster

The almost instant explosion of the North Korean missile test launch brings to mind another missile failure, with deadly consequences and a remarkable change in the direction of world history.

In October, 1960, the Soviet Union was basking in technological triumph. Just three years before, they had put the very first satellite into space. Sputnik circled the globe, transmitting a high pitched pulse that could be picked up by anyone with a ham radio. Students at Columbia University in New York detected the signal and began broadcasting it on the school’s FM station.

The pulsing signal lasted for about 3 weeks before the batteries on the satellite died. Three months later Sputnik’s orbit decayed enough to bring it down. But the orbit was a first. It shook the world.

It was a demonstration of Soviet technology. Premier Nikita Khrushchev carried the message, boasting about the superiority of Soviet science.

In 1959 the USSR and the United States held a sort of cultural exchange, opening cross exhibitions. When Vice President Richard Nixon arrived at the opening of the American exhibit in Moscow, he was greeted by Khrushchev. In the American model kitchen, the two debated.

There are some instances where you may be ahead of us–for example in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances, for example, color television, where we’re ahead of you.

Richard Nixon to Nikita Khrushchev, July 24, 1959

But Sputnik was not simply a technological wonder. It wasn’t television. It wasn’t even the investigation of space. It was a warning about the future of military might.

Both countries had nuclear weapons and bombers designed to deliver them in the event of war. But a country that could send a satellite over the sky of any part of the world could claim the ability to do the same with a thermonuclear weapon.

The Soviet empire had the ability to send a satellite over any country in the world. The United States did not. What other capabilities did the Soviet Union now possess?

Nikita Khrushchev intended to demonstrate just what the Soviet empire could do. October 1960 would mark the 43rd anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia. Khrushchev wanted to surprise the world with a test launch of a new missile, the largest ever made. The new ICBM would clearly be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon pretty much anywhere the Kremlin wanted it to go.

To make sure the launch was ready in time for the anniversary, Khrushchev put in charge of the project the toughest, meanest military officer he knew. Mitrofan Nedelin fit the bill. He had been pushing the development of military technology ever since the Second World War. He didn’t know much about nuclear physics, but he had kicked his subordinates and technicians into bigger and more powerful rockets. He had accidentally helped produce the technology that put Sputnik in space.

And he had the disposition of a poison viper.

In 1956, after a successful nuclear test explosion, a private banquet was held to honor the most prestigious scientist in Russia. Andrei Sakharov had led Soviet nuclear development and the test was a major triumph. At that banquet, Sakharov proposed a toast, hoping the weapon they had developed would never have to be used in war.

Field Marshal Nedelin stood and looked straight at the scientist as he responded coldly. Without smiling, he told a crude, sexually explicit joke the point of which was that scientists had better work at pleasing those in the Kremlin. The generals would decide on war, and scientists would perform as directed.

Sakharov later confessed that he had never felt more intimidated.

Mitrofan Nedelin might not know much about technology, but he knew a lot about intimidation. He could kick ass until people bled, and he enjoyed doing just that. As the Soviet anniversary drew near, it looked as if he would have to swing into action.

A major problem with the new giant booster rocket was that the supposedly solid-stored, leak proof fuel was not behaving. Leaks were springing through pipes. It was already October and the basics were still being covered. It was time to put the hammer down.

He told technicians to stop slacking off. He called in more technicians. Things got crowded. Technical people were stepping over each other. He had them working around the clock. Word was that some had gone without sleep for days.

He rejected excuses and delays. Redundancies were scrapped. When technicians protested that delays were simply caused by routine safety precautions, he told them the precautions were unacceptable. What precautions would there be in the event of war?

As the self-imposed deadline approached, he decided to up the pressure. He pretty much moved his office, including his desk and chair, outside next to the giant booster rockets so that lazy personnel could see his cold stare.

He ordered top scientists in from around the country to join him in supervising the emergency repairs. Slowdowns would not be permitted. The push was on. At one point, mammoth fuel tanks had been scheduled to be emptied while welding was performed. But even that simple precaution was scrapped. It would take too long.

In the end, a tired technician left a gauge on a simple valve in the wrong position. In normal times, it would have been only one of many safety barriers. But this had ceased to be normal. It was the only safety check left.

One spark was all that was needed. The massive explosion lit the sky for miles around. The fireball was was bigger than a football stadium.

Mitrofan Nedelin was vaporized. So were a large, very large, fraction of all the ranks of top Soviet missile, space, and military scientists. The highest echelon of Soviet military officers was decimated. Nobody knows for sure how many hundreds of technicians were killed. What is known is that those who were not turned to gaseous fumes in the first microseconds died horribly.

The catastrophe was a closely held state secret for decades. Even families of the dead were fed made up stories – fake news – about airline crashes and fatal accidents. The deception went on for almost 30 years. In 1989, the tottering Soviet government finally admitted the truth.

The talent lost in the Nedelin Disaster put the Soviet Union so far behind in the space race, there was no hope they could ever maintain their lead, or later catch up. Their military missile program had crashed and burned with their top people.

I thought again about that fiery night as I heard about the missile that exploded over North Korea in a spectacularly unsuccessful test. Dictator Kim Jong-Un has long been regarded as residing somewhere within a spectrum running from recklessness to madness. The paranoid who runs North Korea kills family and top aides if he even suspects they might look at him with anything other than worshipful joy.

President Obama is said to have ordered cyber-intrusions designed to produce malfunctions in North Korean missile tests. But it occurs to me that pressure to perform quickly could have been a distant echo of the Nedelin explosions in the old Soviet empire. How much did hard-nosed deadlines push fearful technicians into premature launch? Forceful madness is dangerous when it is combined with nuclear development. We can be thankful for the weaknesses that can also accompany insanity.

US policy is in the hands of an impulsive new President who too often strikes too quickly, with too little thought. His decisions are rash. He is a captive of his own ignorance, unwilling to learn, unaware that there is anything he does not already know that is worth knowing. His recent boasts show that he does not know, and is unaware that he does not know, the most basic facts about the current crisis in Korea.

North Korea’s dictator only came to be in charge of that imprisoned country in the last couple of days of 2011. That would be five years ago.

I hope things work out well. I hope there’s going to be peace, but they’ve been talking with this gentleman for a long time.

You read Clinton’s book. and he said, “Oh, we made such a great peace deal” and it was a joke. You look at different things over the years with President Obama. Everybody has been outplayed.

They’ve all been outplayed by this gentleman. And we’ll see what happens. I just don’t telegraph my moves.

President Trump, interviewed by Fox News

President Trump does not know much about the petulant young man who took over North Korea 5 years ago. He does not know who he is (this gentleman). He does not know how long he has ruled.

But he intends to be tougher with the young dictator than was Bill Clinton.

Kim Jung Un was not in power when Bill Clinton was first elected President. He was 8 years old. He was 16, and also not yet in power, when Bill Clinton left office.

You read Clinton’s book. and he said, “Oh, we made such a great peace deal” and it was a joke.

President Trump does not know that Kim was not in power when Barack Obama took office, or how Obama dealt with the young dictator once he took over.

You look at different things over the years with President Obama. Everybody has been outplayed.

The young madman in North Korea does not represent the only opportunity our President will have for deadly mistakes.

Unlike Kim, President Trump is not a madman. But neither was Field Marshal Nedelin.

Decades after that night of fire and death, Mitrofan Nedelin is still honored by official Russia as a hero whose tough attitude pushed and prodded Russia into the space age.

But in the town that hosts the space launch facility, feelings are a little different. Streets in Baikonur are named for some of the more famous victims of that catastrophe.

Nosov Street is named for scientist Aleksandr Nosov, chief of the Sputnik launch team. Test pilot Yevgeny Ostashev is also honored with a street. And there are other streets and lanes that carry other names of the honored dead of the Nedelin Disaster.

There is no Mitrofan Nedelin Street in Baikonur. There is no monument, no plaque. People in the area, proud of their heroes, prefer not to speak of the hard-nosed take-no-excuses officer who orchestrated fiery death that still burns in the memory of those witnesses who are still among the living.

We who see danger in impulsive leadership, leadership scornful of sober deliberation, scornful of knowledge itself, we can envision the worst as we hope for the best.

We pray that wisdom may find its place in the mind of our new President.

We can be a little more hopeful as we pray for wisdom on the part of those who surround him.

For those of us who have difficulty with even that limited visionary hope … well … we can always pray for simple luck.

We all pray that we need never decide what streets to name.

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15 thoughts on “Trump, Kim, and the Nedelin Disaster”

  1. A gripping story and an excellent illustration of how authoritarianism tends to produce incompetence and disaster. No wonder the greatest scientific and technological advances — and the most reliable engineering — come from liberal democracies like the US, Japan, and western Europe.

    Nothing good can come of putting ignorant political bullies in a position to override the work of scientists — as Trump has been doing in the EPA and elsewhere.

  2. Excellent article, Mr. Deming.

    I too pray that wisdom will find President Trump and those that advise him. Right now, his seeming reactionary recklessness is a constant source of concern.

  3. An article in the Guardian last week provides more confirmation that John Brennan was the American progenitor of political espionage aimed at defeating Donald Trump. One side did collude with foreign powers to tip the election — Hillary’s.

    Seeking to retain his position as CIA director under Hillary, Brennan teamed up with British spies and Estonian spies to cripple Trump’s candidacy. He used their phony intelligence as a pretext for a multi-agency investigation into Trump, which led the FBI to probe a computer server connected to Trump Tower and gave cover to Susan Rice, among other Hillary

    supporters, to spy on Trump and his people.

  4. Thank you Major for your link.

    Here are a couple of reader reactions I found there.

    “I would gladly spend the time in jail to punch the effing commie in the face!!! MOUTH!!!” and “ I am an old man and I volunteer to do it. Wish I had the chance,” are some samples of conservative dupes driven to rage by your source.

    It appears you and the angry con-servatives have no interest in checking sources beyond your cult bubble.

    The propagandists of the far Right hate site link to a Guardian piece that they twisted like a pretzel.

    Here are some actual points made from the Guardian article :

    Comey and the NSA director, Admiral Michael Rogers, said there was no basis for the president’s claim that he was a victim of Obama “wiretapping”.

    As WikiLeaks published emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, US agencies began picking up conversations in which Russians were discussing contacts with Trump associates, the paper said.

    One source suggested the official investigation was making progress. “They now have specific concrete and corroborative evidence of collusion,” the source said. “This is between people in the Trump campaign and agents of [Russian] influence relating to the use of hacked material.”

    Isn’t it funny how these parts were ignored?

    1. This is what happens when you need to filter primary sources through a secondary or tertiary source in order to scrub it so it fits into your comfortable world view. Why actually read the article when someone else has read it for me and told me how to think?

  5. “Why actually read the article when someone else has read it for me and told me how to think?”

    Are you kidding? This is how most of the world gets their information. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, Time, NY Times etc. all get information, often not from first hand sources, and then tells the public what to think about it. Sometimes, what is even more telling are the stories they decided to spike and not report.

    1. No, T.Paine. I am not kidding. Major literally started his comment with ‘An article in the Guardian last week…’ and rather than linking to said article, he links to the American Spectator which referenced the Guardian article and then spun it off on a tangent. A tangent which was apparently more comfortable for Major’s world view. That’s not how you argue. You have a readily available primary source that you reference in your statement and then you, instead, present a totally unrelated publication? Come on.

      It’s incredibly obvious Major didn’t even read the article that was referenced in the Spectator piece. The very first sentence of the article has no basis in reality. No where in the Guardian article does it even hint that John Brennan was the ‘progenitor of political espionage’. Hell, the Guardian even says that the US agencies “were asleep”. The Spectator also said Brennan “teamed up” with British and Estonian spies/agencies, which is intentionally evocative language. US Spy agencies, as stated in the Guardian article, have routine Intelligence sharing. According the cited Guardian article, there was nothing said to make one think there was ‘teaming up’

      As you read the Specator article, it’s amazing Major can even take it seriously. Nevermind how flippant it discredits its own linked source:

      “The Guardian story is written in a style designed to flatter its sources (they are cast as high-minded whistleblowers), but the upshot of it is devastating for them, nonetheless, and explains why all the criminal leaks against Trump first originated in the British press. According to the story, Brennan got his anti-Trump tips primarily from British spies but also Estonian spies and others. The story confirms that the seed of the espionage into Trump was planted by Estonia.”

      The Guardian article doesn’t say anything of the sort. It’s a complete fabrication. The Guardian wrote:

      “It is understood that GCHQ was at no point carrying out a targeted operation against Trump or his team or proactively seeking information. The alleged conversations were picked up by chance as part of routine surveillance of Russian intelligence assets. Over several months, different agencies targeting the same people began to see a pattern of connections that were flagged to intelligence officials in the US.”

      Furthermore, the filter Major chooses to use to back up his arguement makes many claims that itself doesn’t try to back up. They just throw them out there for folks like Major to gobble up as gospel.

      Example: Brennan briefed the Gang of Eight and then the information turned up on the front page of the NYT. This would have been an excellent chance to link to said page to prove this claim.

      Example: Estonia was eager to see Trump lose. The article mentions it was due to Trump’s opinions on NATO. No citations and I can’t find any information anywhere that reinforces this claim.

      Example: He (Brennan) was auditioning for Hillary in an effort to “keep his job”. This is an assumption and claim not backed up by anything other than narrative creation.

      Example: Brennan “despised” Trump for the Muslim ban. Apparently calling the ban simplistic and misguided means Brennan despised Trump. With no citation to this, I have no way of knowing why The Spectator said this.

      In fact, the whole of the last 3 paragraphs of the Spectator article is just hearsay with no citations or links. They even give us a quote from Brennan about his time in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately they don’t mention when or where he made this quote and doing my own research, the only place I can even find a published version of the quote online in two places. The Specator and, their likely source,… which also doesn’t have a citation for the quote.

      tldr; When in doubt, stick to a primary sources. Read your sources and your source’s sources. Even CNN’s, NBC’s, etc, etc. Also read more than the title of the article.

  6. Trey,
    As we know, the cons have a vast cult industry dedicated to indoctrinating their true believers about who to hate, who to blame and who to ignore. Their bubble cult could not exist without lies, blame, anger and “alternative facts”.

    These self-identified “patriots” and “real Americans” have found the toxic formula strong enough to poison our free press and national dialogue that is essential to a democratic representative republic.

    As Olivia Ward notes in Truth, Lies and Democracy: Journalism in the Age of Trump:

    When the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) said “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” it seemed to be one of those self-evident truths.

    That was the world of Watergate, of Nixon and the team that exposed him and ultimately saw him disqualified from office. The process was arduous but the formula was simple: Find the lies, bring them to light, let justice take its course. They are principles of journalism, but also of democracy.

    In the age of Trump, those foundations have been kicked away. They consist of three pillars of a civil society: agreement on the facts, agreement that they need to be acted upon and a system that is willing to clear away the lies and the liars. With Trump barely in office, we have already seen those foundations crumble. Whether they will become broken remnants of the past is now in the balance.

    This is the key how authoritarians gain power for their totalitarian agenda of suppressing voter rights, subverting democracy, demonizing a free press, smearing liberals, attacking the judiciary, undermining public education, and promoting their corporate/military/police state agenda over the public good.

  7. Mr. Paine,

    “Are you kidding?”

    No, he’s not kidding. Did you miss the perfect case study in this thread? Did you see the hate? Did you note the ready belief without examination?

    Yes, some journalists report from previous accounts. Most journalists actually investigate sources and evidence. No wonder your belief system regards journalism as “leftist”.

    Cons merely dismiss and demonize as “leftist” ANY source outside their bubble. You and Major have demonstrated this again and again and again.

    I understand it must be a lot easier, and comforting I suppose, to just believe without question corporate PR, and what Trump and his Party spews. It beats actually trying to understand what liberals, scientists, educators, and journalists say.

    This explains cons’ need to put liberals’ thoughts into a little box that conforms to their indoctrinated beliefs. “Liberals are commies who want to kill babies, have no family values, hate America, hate the rich, hate religion, hate freedom, hate the police, hate the military, hate decent real Americans” etc. You have reinforced all of these demonizing propaganda points at one point or another.

    While many liberals may find comfort within their own information bubble, it pales in comparison to the vast industry of far Right mis-information, demonization, and propaganda.

    Our nation has been reduced by the Right to the sad point of needing a “March for science”.

    What does that say?

  8. As we know, the libs have a vast cult industry dedicated to indoctrinating their true believers about whom to hate, whom to blame and whom to ignore. Their bubble cult could not exist without lies, blame, anger and “alternative facts”. Of course for the left this cult industry involves indoctrination from many of the liberal professors at universities and the mainstream media that regurgitates the same things that they believe in and spew to their students.

    Of course the love and tolerance of some on the left is abundant, unless you disagree with their ideology. Then you are only worthy of hate, derision, and being shouted down. There is no place for diversity of ideas on most college campuses because of the lack of tolerance from the left.

    “That was the world of Watergate, of Nixon and the team that exposed him and ultimately saw him disqualified from office. The process was arduous but the formula was simple: Find the lies, bring them to light, let justice take its course. They are principles of journalism, but also of democracy.”

    Yes, those journalistic practices were in full display as Bill Clinton perjured himself and suborned perjury as a sitting president, and many of those in the “unbiased” media said it was only about his personal life and to “move on”.

    So Hillary and the Clinton Foundation came along and once again the mainstream “unbiased” media said there is nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Her foundation is for charitable work, regardless of the numerous seemingly quid pro quo’s that occurred with her donors. Now that she lost the presidency and has lots of time to dedicate to charity, evidently her foundation is no more. Coincidence again, I ask you?

    Mr. Dubya is quick to take offense at perceived slights from the right… some real and many imagined, but he evidently doesn’t seem to notice the irony in his projection of these same charges against the right.

    1. Yes, way to take what Dave wrote and just replace Cons with Libs. That adds a nice touch to the conversation.

      You know T.Paine, part of why I like frequenting this Blog is because it is a place where we generally don’t have to be hateful, derisive or shout one another down. We’ve all had several conversations over the years that have been nice conversations… despite the fact that you, or me, or most people involved in the conversations never actually seem to change any minds. It’s nice though. Even though there is sniping and snarky comments, I love the interactions between you and Burr specifically. Despite your wildly differing opinions and world views, you can put that aside and thank each other or praise one another or pray for one another. That’s nice and political discourse could use more of that.

      Now, I won’t comment on Bill Clinton, because I don’t have the time or patience to sift through late 1990’s internet archives on how Bill was covered in the media right now. But, the Clinton Foundation? I’m not sure what you really want to hear about that. On Right-Leaning Blogs/sites/forums I often see the Clinton Foundation brought up as some bastion of corruption or something. Why is the media not talking about it? Is the constant refrain You can go to google right now and just type in ‘Clinton Foundation’ and once you get past the Foundation’s website, Facebook, and wiki pages you’ve got articles on the first page of the search from WaPo and CNN. NYT shows up on page 2. I passed over some and Snopes articles, but I’m sure those would be of no interest to you.

      I am glad, though, that all the folks concerned about the Clinton Foundation and ‘pay for play’ or quid pro quo fears have shifted all of their attention to The Trump Organization. Oh. They haven’t? Funny.

      “Now that she lost the presidency and has lots of time to dedicate to charity, evidently her foundation is no more. Coincidence again, I ask you?”

      No. There’s no coincidence because that’s not true. The Foundation is still in operation. They just held their Health Matters summit just last week.

  9. But what do I know?

    According to Mr. Dubya’s projections, I am an intolerant, racist, authoritarian, sexist, homophobe, who obviously loves Trump.

    For the rest of the world that has read my thoughts and writing over the years and have seen the real context, the truth puts this to shame, but why let the facts get in the way… right?

    I think the late Senator Moynihan would even agree with me.

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