The Loose Bolt That Destroyed a Moon Rocket
Anyone who's ever assembled Ikea furniture knows that screwing in bolts is no walk in the park. You've got to turn and turn and turn, and sometimes you just want to say "Eh, good enough" and take a nap (on the floor, of course, since your furniture probably isn't safe for sleeping).
At some point in the mid-1960s, a Soviet comrade with a tired arm had the same feeling. The only difference was that he wasn't assembling economical yet sleek furniture -- he was assembling an N1 rocket for the Soviet space program.
Those are people in the lower right. What's one little bolt mean to that monster?
You know where this is going.
We've talked about Russian space missions before, always with a little tear streaming down our face, because they were so damn sad. The poor suckers didn't have enough money or time or know-how to get to the moon, but by gosh did they try. And the N1 rocket was supposed to get them there.
It did not.
Four test launches were scheduled, and four test launches failed spectacularly. This particular failure, the one doomed by the stray bolt, occurred on July 3, 1969, only a few weeks before the Apollo hit the moon for real.
At liftoff, that single loose bolt was sucked into a fuel pump, which then stopped cold. Because the fuel pump wasn't working, the automatic engine control shut down 29 of the rocket's 30 engines.
Which is sort of like asking Fred Flintstone to take over for your 18-wheeler's engine while it barrels down the interstate.
So, 20 seconds into its flight, the whole rocket stalled. Which was very, very bad, because that rocket booster was full of rocket fuel as it plunged back down to Earth. The resulting explosion was huge, yet the Soviets somehow managed to keep the whole disaster a secret until the fall of communism. And that was when we got a hold of this footage: