When the Soviets Built an Armed Space Station
I will say it again, the weapons of the Cold War could get crazy. Anything goes here, from arming commercial jets, building an armored chopper, to making insane flying saucers. Getting an advantage over your rival is the name of the game. Hence crazy ideas came out. If this will give the US or the Soviet advantage over each other, planners will lap it out, no matter how crazy it sounds.
And when the space race heats up, the Soviets just built the real-life working version of a TIE Fighter. Well close to the TIE fighter, as it was not meant to maneuver like a fighting space craft. In fact, it stayed in orbit all the time. It’s a space station to b e exact, with something sinister to offer.
The Soviets pioneered the development of the venerable space station. Since they are the first to send a man into space, it won’t take that long for them to figure out how men could live there in prolonged periods. Soon the Salyut space station came which startled the West so much. The Soviets demonstrated their technical superiority in those days by bringing science fiction to life. They made a space outpost for astronauts, though their first mission ended up in disaster. Yet that don’t stop the Soviet planners to perfect their technology and launch several successful missions. They then upped the ante by arming their space station. You heard it right. One of these orbital outposts carried a canon, which turned this space habitation, into science fiction type fortress.
The Salyut Space Station
Before we proceed, it’s worth mentioning first the very first space station programme known as Salyut. The “Salyut” actually meant “fireworks” in Russian, and by being the first to setup an orbital habitation for cosmonauts, where they can live for extended period, the Soviets truly deserve a lot of fireworks display for such an achievement. A series of four space stations was sent into orbit in a period of fifteen years, from 1971 to 1986.
The programme broke several spaceflight records from mission durations to space walks. Nevertheless, it had fair shares of catastrophic failures and the first Salyut space station ended in tragedy. During reentry, the pressure equalization valve of the Soyuz decent module opened prematurely. This caused the spacecraft to depressurize and the cosmonauts suffocated to death. But the tragic lost didn’t stop the Salyut program. In fact, with the lessons learned from the previous tragedy, the technology was perfected and more successful programmes were launched in the future. Experiences learned were applied to larger programmes, like the MIR and ISS.
Again, space stations are for scientific research. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t used for military purposes.
Between 1973 and 1976, a series of space stations were launched under the secretive military programme Almaz (“Diamond” in Russian). Due to the sensitive nature of the programme, the Almaz will be launched as space station Salyuts. Three Salyuts are launched during that period, and they are designated for civilian and scientific use, just to cover its military nature. Salyut 2 failed to stay in orbit after it depressurized and lost altitude control. Its orbit then decayed before getting wrecked in the earth’s atmosphere (fortunately, without loss of lives this time). But the later Salyut stations achieved greater success.
Reconnaissance and intelligence gathering were the main purpose of the Almaz project. Space stations manned by human sentries will watch the enemy below. As was planned, the space stations will be operated to provide photographic and radar images. It was proposed that human eyes and brains are better at choosing targets than automated means. The work compartment of the space stations was equipped with telescopes and cameras, where captured images will be developed on the spot by the cosmonauts and be scanned by a TV imaging system. This must be done in a time limit of 30 minutes. Eventually the overall costs and complexity of the program will be overshadowed by unmanned artificial satellites in the future. But during the durations of their missions, Almaz space stations also carried a different kind of equipment that enabled them to destroy targets that came too close for comfort.
Armed Space Stations
In the Cold War, both sides worried about their spacecrafts being attacked, as the rivals each had anti satellite weapons.
Then, there are also the prospect of US spacecrafts and satellites spotting the highly classified space assets, inspecting them, and spilling the beans to the public. Hence the Soviets felt that it is only fair if their space stations are equipped for self defense. This means that the Almaz stations are armed. Some account claimed that the weapon used for the space stations was the variant of a 23 mm Nudelman aircraft cannon. Possibly it was the Nudelman-Richter “Vulcan” or the Nudelman NR 30 30 mm gun. In some sources, the gun was the unknown version of Richter R-23. This was also mentioned in an article by Popular Mechanics, where they further elaborated that it was derived the R-23M Kartech. This weapon was designed by Aron Richter, used for Tupolev T-22 supersonic bomber.
Overall, the space canon is largely obscured, but grainy images from Russian TV shows could be seen lately. And the gun itself is highly powerful. The rapid fire of the cannon could hit a target two miles away. The firing rate is 950 to 5000 shots per minute, depending who one asks. A 200-gram shell leaving its muzzle could streak at 1500 miles per hour. In one ground test, the space cannon pierced a metal gasoline can a mile away.
The gun was not mounted in a turret, or any turning platform. Hence to aim the space cannon, the whole space station needs to turn.
And it was reported that orbital firing of the weapon did happened.
It was after the last manned mission, when the crews vacated the space station. With thrusters on to counteract the recoil of the high-powered weapon, the cannon fired. The unmanned space station was controlled from the ground, and the purpose of the live firing is for ammunition depletion. The shells burned in the atmosphere.
1. Zak, Anatoly (November 16, 2015). "Here Is the Soviet Union's Secret Space Cannon". Popular Mechanics.
2. de Gouyon Matignon, Louis (May 08, 2019). "The Soviet Almaz military space station." Space Legal Issues.
3. Redd, Nola Taylor (July 26, 2012). "Salyut 1: The First Space Station." Space.com.