Posts Tagged ‘The Shape of Wars to Come’

The Almaz – The Soviet Union’s Armed Spy Space Station

June 26, 2021

This is another fascinating little video from the military historian Mark Felton. I’ve put up a couple of his videos demolishing the stories about Nazi UFOs and space/time travel. But some real aerospace and military technology comes very close to Science Fiction. In this video, he talks about the Almaz armed spy stations launched by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. They were manned spacecraft, designed to photograph NATO military targets during the tense days of the Cold War. They were launched under the cover of a civilian space programme, Salyut. And to protect them from western attack, each station was armed with a rapid fire aircraft gun. It’s an idea close to the Bond film, Moonraker, in which Bond tackles Hugo Drax and his minions aboard their own space station.

The Almaz, ‘Diamond’, stations consisted of three sections. There was the main, piloted station module, a cargo section for resupply, and a launch and return craft. The stations were launched using a Proton rocket, and carried a two-three man crew, in space for 20 to 30 days before returning to Earth and being replaced by the next crew. They were armed with 25 mm Rikhtor guns, a modified version of the tail canon used on the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder Russian bomber. The Russians were afraid that vibrations from the canon might damage the spacecraft, and so arranged a test firing. Salyut 3 (Almaz 2) was due to come to the end of its life in July 1974, and so was selected as a suitable test vehicle. After the last crew left on the 19th of that month, the station was remotely operated so that it targeted and shot down a defunct Soviet satellite. The Almaz station, the satellite, and the spent rounds were all burned up when they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere afterwards. To date, Russia is the only country that has fired a weapon in space, but this may change.

I remember the Salyut space programme. It was always presented as just civilian research into living in space, and people were impressed by the lengths of time the Russians were able successfully to keep crews in orbit. However, these achievements were never as spectacular or interesting as the Moon landings. Now it’s been revealed that they were military spy missions, a fact that has almost certainly been revealed as a consequence of the Fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War.

It’s not just with the Bond film Moonraker that the Almaz stations have a similarity. In Kubrick’s and Clarke’s classic SF film, 2001, the world is on the brink of a nuclear war. After the first section, which shows a group of primitive hominids being led to intelligence by the black monolith on the prehistoric Earth, the film cuts to space, showing various satellites gliding in orbit while the Orion space shuttle makes it complex maneuvres to dock with the wheel-like space station. Although their purpose isn’t obvious, as Kubrick didn’t want people to think his film was repeating the themes of his Cold War nuclear satire, Dr Strangelove, these satellites are actually orbiting nuclear weapons platforms. Real killer satellites like them, but using ‘pop-up’ lasers to destroy nuclear missiles, were designed as part of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme. There have been a number of books written about possible future wars in space, such as The Shape of Wars to Come, and a year or so ago former president Donald Trump called for the creation of an American space force. Which I think has provided the subject matter for a comedy on Netflix or one of the other streaming channels.

The arming of the Almaz stations shows how terrifyingly close the threat of war in space is to reality. I hope that for the sake of the world we manage to halt the militarisation of space and keep space exploration and, hopefully, colonisation, peaceful. Although this may be difficult given rising tensions between the West, Russia and China.