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The Launchbox, PoD 6: The Soviet Death Star

By Andy Cooke

The Soviets were worried. Ronald Reagan's rhetoric on his "Strategic Defence Initiative" was vivid, although was it remotely feasible? Technically, economically, politically... there were many obstacles to it being more than just a pipe dream, but could they afford to assume that it wouldn't soon exist?

They had to do something about it. Although the 1967 OOuter Space Treaty and 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty banned the weaponisation of space, they did allow the "investigation and research" of space-based defence systems. So, of course, both sides did just that.

One further cause for alarm for the Soviet leadership, and something that pointed to Reagan's words being the prelude to real danger for them, was the Space Shuttle.

NASA drawing comparing Soyuz rocket, US Space Shuttle, and Soviet Energiya-Buran

Every analysis showed that the ostensible economic rationale for it was totally bogus. There was no way that this thing was going to give anything like the cost savings that were touted for it. In reality, this was due to internal politics and the way US Government funding worked - in order for anything to be done, Departments had to lie hugely to get their funding. The Soviets didn't consider this; instead concluding that there had to be a secret military justification - one they had not yet spotted (they even built a near-duplicate of the Shuttle, with many of its design problems and restrictions, simply to ensure they had one of these obviously-militarily-necessary vehicles. They could work out what it was for, later).


The Russians had already been investigating military space stations. The Almaz series were explicitly military. Under nineteen tonnes in mass, with docking ports at each side of the 48 feet long station, it held multiple military-grade cameras for use by an on-board crew.

The first Almaz was launched as Salyut 2 - nominally the successor to the civilian (and unfortunate) Salyut 1 (the first crew launched to Salyut 1 could not enter the station; the second was so successful that they became well-known and popular in the Soviet Union during their mission - and then died of asphyxiation when their Soyuz capsule had a valve depressurisation problem on re-entry).

Salyut 2 failed in orbit before a crew could dock with it. An explosion of the third-stage Proton launcher placed a cloud of debris in orbit near the space station; eight days later, a chunk of this debris blew a hole in the nitrogen tank of the engine unit pressurisation system; within two weeks, the station had de-pressurised, lost attitude control, and lost radio communications. Its orbit decayed and it re-entered on 28th May 1973, less than two months after launch.

Almaz "self-defence" cannon. Credit NPO Mash

Undeterred, a second Almaz was launched on 24th June 1974 as Salyut 3. In addition to the 14 cameras (visible light and infrared) and upgraded water-recycling facilities, thermal control systems and attitude control, it had an on-board "self-defence" cannon. The only cannon ever to be fired in orbit, the Russians test-fired it on 24th January, 1975 - while the space station was unmanned (to minimise risk to any crew). The Almaz had to turn to point the cannon 'backwards' in its own orbit, ignited its own jet thrusters to counter the recoil, and fired twenty shells in three bursts. The shells therefore had less orbital velocity than the station and had a far lower perigee, burning up in the atmosphere and removing themselves as a potential hazard (it is considered embarrassing to shoot oneself down; a real threat in orbital warfare, as anything fired will come around again if it stays in orbit).

Two crews were launched to Salyut 3; the first being successful and the second failing to dock. Salyut 3 deliberately re-entered the atmosphere the day after the cannon test on 24th January 1975 and disintegrated.

Almaz and Soyuz in orbit. Credit NPO Mash

A final "Phase 1" Almaz was launched as Salyut 5 on 22 June 1976, without a cannon but with improved cameras. Three crews were launched to it - the first had its mission curtailed after under two months when they complained of a bad smell on board and headaches. In case of toxic chemicals in the life support system, they returned early (it is also noted on Encyclopedia Astronautica that "crew member became psychotic").

The second crew (in Soyuz 23) failed to dock, re-entered low on propellant in the middle of the night, and became the first Soviet manned spacecraft to carry out a water splashdown, after unintentionally finding a semi-frozen lake in northern Kazakhstan (well, more an ice, slush, and sludgedown, I suppose). To add insult to injury, the water-sodden parachute turned the capsule upside down in the semi-frozen slush and the swampy shores prevented the rescue team from getting close (eventually a rescue diver jumped from a helicopter and managed (after several attempts) to secure a line to it and the helicopter - which couldn't quite lift it - dragged it to shore). It is reported that the rescue crews were surprised when they opened the capsule and found the cosmonauts still alive, if somewhat disgruntled.

A third mission, Soyuz 24, was more fortunate than its predecessors. Only lasting for 18 days, they reportedly accomplished as much as the 50-day Soyuz 21 crew (with significantly less in the way of psychotic crew members), and found no smell or air toxins (but changed the air anyway; no point in taking risks, especially if you're in the Soviet space programme). A fourth mission was pencilled in, but cancelled when the fuel reserves on Salyut 5 dropped below sufficient limits for the planned mission and the space station was de-orbited and disintegrated on August 8th, 1977. A film capsule from the final mission was auctioned off at Sotheby's in 1993 and donated to the US National Air and Space Museum, which is probably indicative of something.

A second-generation Almaz was planned, with a modified docking port, synthetic aperture radar and electronic intelligence hardware, and, instead of bringing back the self-defence cannon, twin unguided missiles.


Polyus-Skif. Credit Dr Vadim P Lukashevich

The second-generation Almaz had suffered from a loss of funding and growing scepticism towards the value of manned military reconnaissance spacecraft. The fact that the Almaz designer, Chelomei, lost his patronage in the Ministry of Defence when his patron Grechko died in 1978 (to be replaced by Ustinov, who hated Chelomei) didn't help matters.

Then, when Reagan's 'vision' was laid out, the Soviet leadership, panicking, revived the manned military space station concept with a rush programme. Almaz 2 was not to be the answer. "If you're going to go at all, go large", was their philosophy. "Skif" (referring to the Scythians, an ancient warrior tribe) was to carry a one-megawatt carbon dioxide laser to be used to shoot down American ballistic missiles. As well as this, it would have a self-defence cannon (they had a proven design for space use, after all) and a recoilless sub-satellite launcher system. Suggestions that it carry nuclear missiles were shot down before they could enter the design phase.

A demonstration vehicle (Skif-D) had to be constructed and tested as soon as possible. The Mir Space Station was already being constructed, so a spare core module from an intended Mir-2 station was repurposed. Parts of the Buran programme (the Soviet Space Shuttle) were taken and hammered to fit. A cunning plan to disguise the operation of the carbon dioxide laser (which would vent significant quantities of carbon dioxode gas) involved carrying a quantity of xenon and krypton gas, which would be released simultaneously with laser firings - not only countering the recoil of the gas emissions, but masking them under the cover of a geophysical experiment to investigate interactions with ionospheric plasma around the Earth. The laser cannon was behind schedule (and Gorbachev worried about how it would be viewed if the information got out), so a late decision was made to replace it with a targeting laser mocked up to a similar size.

The space station would weigh in at over 80 tonnes, several times the size of Almaz. Well over a hundred feet long, it dwarfed any space station yet launched (longer and heavier even than Skylab, although far narrower).


Polyus-Skif-DM on Energiya before launch. The Cyrillic for "Mir-2" can be just made out

The new Energiya super-heavy launcher, replacing the failed N-1 project, was becoming available. It was intended to launch Buran, but a test launch with a dummy payload was to be done first. Except that Skif was hurried onto the first launcher and quickly renamed "Polyus" (meaning "Pole," as in "North Pole" and "South Pole"). It would be declared as Mir-2 after successfully entering orbit - or, at least, that was the plan.

Painted black, it was mated to Energiya and readied for launch. A trajectory to ensure it would avoid any foreign soil on its climb to orbit was carefully chosen, and the engines of Energiya rumbled into life on 15th of May 1987.

The launcher worked perfectly and deposited Polyus-Skif into the desired sub-orbital trajectory. Due to the rushed design, the engines for the final boost into orbit were in the nose (the TKS interface that had been repurposed for the Polyus-Skif test article was designed for the Proton launcher and could not be re-adapted; placing them in the nose was the simplest option).

The stack had to carry out a 180 degree rotation to allow the final booster to accelerate it into orbit. The controllers watched as the rotation began, going smoothly. And continued for a full 360 degrees, before the rockets fired obediently, decelerating the stack into re-entry. A single inertial guidance sensor, stripped from an existing satellite prior to launch and not adequately tested, had failed.

Due to its size, much of the wreckage survived re-entry and splashed into the South Pacific.

The US Navy have made no statements about any attempts that may or may not have been carried out to explore the wreckage of the Polyus-Skif space station under the Pacific.

What If

Polyus as it would have looked in orbit

If that guidance sensor had not failed, the largest space station in history (up to that point) would have lumbered into orbit in the late spring of 1987. And this space station would have been a military one. Although the laser cannon was not operative, the conventional cannon certainly was.

The ostensible civilian purpose for the military station would not have held for long. The US, under Reagan, would have been sorely provoked by the blatant militarisation of the High Frontier - especially if they did not realise the laser cannon was practically a mockup (it took until 2004 for this to be confirmed in OTL). How would they have reacted?

Bear in mind that the Challenger disaster had only happened just over a year ago, and NASA's Shuttle fleet was still grounded. It would not fly another Shuttle until September 1988 - sixteen months after the attempted Polyus launch. America would have felt very vulnerable.

A crash return-to-flight of the Shuttle (which could have gone badly wrong)? A "black" programme to get an Apollo-like capsule capability developed? Attempted laser blinding of Polyus? SDI going into high gear and an attempt to match the launch?

Shuttle-C proposal; artwork by Boeing

The possibility of "Shuttle-C" had long been proposed - a "shortcut" way to regain super-heavy lift capability while reusing much of the Shuttle hardware. An expendable pod, with two Space Shuttle Main Engines to replace the Shuttle Orbiter on the Shuttle stack should be able to lift 77 tonnes (the weight of Skylab) into Low Earth Orbit. Could this have been brought out?

With the priority on military spending under Reagan and the fear of Polyus - sometimes described as "The Soviet Death Star that failed", you could see all four of those. After all, the amount of funding needed for these together would still have been a small fraction of military spending, and now, all of a sudden, there would be a very real urgency to see this happen.

Shuttle-C available. A backup capsule capability (quite possibly led by the USAF, who never liked having to rely on the Shuttle). A US military space station eyeballing a Soviet military space station in Low Earth Orbit. And, possibly, another Space Shuttle disaster within a couple of years of the first.

On the flip side, the active militarisation of space. An increase in potential threats and tensions (it's all but certain that the "Death Star" tag would be applied to Polyus by western media, and it's axiomatic that media doesn't react; it overreacts. The risks, dangers, and capabilities would certainly be blown up hugely. Hopefully it wouldn't end with the rest of us being blown up hugely as well...). I'd like to think things would unfold so that those tensions and threats would decrease over time (while keeping the extra capability that we'd have had), but I'm aware that this is certainly the most optimistic way things could go.

Interesting times in space.

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Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP