I would like to begin this post by acknowledging a grave failure: a recent shortage of Soviet-related posts. It is simply an intolerable situation. The Soviet space program is a cornerstone of this website, but the last time I wrote anything about it was in November! So, to rectify this, I will today discuss one of the most outlandish episodes of the Cold War: the time the crumbling USSR attempted to launch a laser-armed battle station into orbit.
Some context may be necessary here, to understand how on Earth this happened. It was the mid-1980s; Ronald Reagan was pushing the Strategic Defense Initiative, which developed a multitude of methods to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles1, the ultimate goal being to render mutual assured destruction obsolete. This was more than a little threatening to the communists. If the US had an impenetrable shield against nuclear attack, and the USSR didn’t, there would be nothing preventing the launch of a first strike to end the Cold War once and for all. So the Soviets began work on what would become the Polyus satellite, starting in the mid-1970s.
Polyus (also known as “Skif”) evolved into an enormous eighty-ton station equipped with a one-megawatt carbon dioxide laser. Initially designed with missile interception in mind, à la SDI, the program objectives shifted exclusively towards a more achievable goal, engaging United States anti-missile satellites. Towards this end, the craft would have also had an aircraft cannon for short-range defense (sort of like Salyut 3) and possibly “nuclear space mines” (I don’t think these were ever anywhere near deployment). Actual details about what the flown Polyus article did and did not carry are rather sparse; the program as a whole remains shrouded in mystery, being a top-secret military project and all that, and in any case Polyus was launched incomplete, as a stripped-down, cobbled-together testbed of different technologies. According to Weapons and Warfare (see citations), the final iteration of the laser was only able to take out sensors rather than entire satellites.
The reason they tried to send a half-built semi-mockup into orbit had to do with the launch vehicle. Energia, the new super-heavy booster, was almost complete by 1985, but its intended payload—Buran—was not. Designers saw an opportunity to use a version of Polyus as a test payload. Thus, over the span of a year, NPO Energia rushed an 80-ton prototype out onto the production floor, essentially putting together a Frankenstein spacecraft incorporating the booster interface from Buran, the module design from the proposed Mir 2 space station, and a Functional Cargo Block2 adapted from the TKS resupply ship. Delays pushed the launch to May 1987, but the Energia-Polyus stack did eventually make it to the launchpad. Mikhail Gorbachev, who very much wanted to wind down the Cold War instead of provoking the West with a battle satellite, visited Baikonur just before the mission and expressly prohibited any on-orbit testing.
Not that it ended up mattering. While the Energia booster took off just fine, the Polyus spacecraft itself crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Why did this happen? Well, Polyus was launched upside-down, for reasons related to dynamic stresses on the side of the carrier rocket, so after separating from Energia it was to complete its orbital insertion by flipping 180 degrees and activating the engines on the Functional Cargo Block. Unfortunately some technicians had installed a faulty inertial guidance sensor, and a 180-degree turn became a 360-degree one. The orbital burn had the exact opposite effect. Polyus was a complete loss, and since it was 1987, with the communist system on the brink of collapse, the Soviets could not afford a second attempt.
There is a big upside, of course—thirty years later, Polyus gives space nerds like me something cool to talk about, a vital benefit that the craft’s designers surely did not realize at the time.
Thanks for reading, everyone! I’ll catch y’all next week (probably).
- SDI, though a beautiful, amazing idea (who can say no to attaining strategic supremacy through space lasers?), was not a success. It fizzled out towards the end of the 1980s and then filtered through a variety of successor programs, culminating in the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense that is (barely) operational today.
- The Functional Cargo Block would later serve as the basis for the Zarya and Nauka modules of the ISS.