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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