Soviet Star Wars
The launch that saved the world from orbiting laser battle stations.
- By Dwayne A. Day and Robert G. Kennedy III
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
Background: www.buran-energia.com; Foreground: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
(Page 4 of 5)
Meeting such a tight deadline had a human cost. At one point, more than 70 firms within the Soviet aerospace industry were working on Polyus-Skif. In his history of the project, Lantratov quotes from an article by Yuri Kornilov, the lead Skif-DM designer at the Khrunichev Machine Building Factory: "As a rule, no excuses were accepted—not even the fact that it was almost the same group of people who, at that time, were performing the grandiose work associated with the creation of Buran. Everything took a back seat to meeting the deadlines assigned from the top."
The designers realized that once they launched the huge craft into space and it expelled large amounts of carbon dioxide, American intelligence analysts would observe the gas and quickly figure out that it was intended for a laser. So the Soviets switched to a combination of xenon and krypton for the Skif-DM venting test. These gases would interact with ionospheric plasma around Earth, and the spacecraft would appear to be part of a civilian geophysics experiment. Skif-DM would also be equipped with small inflatable balloon targets, mimicking enemy satellites, that would be jettisoned in flight and tracked with the radar and the pointing laser.
The launch of the demonstration satellite slipped to 1987, partly because the launch pad had to be modified to accommodate a rocket as heavy as Energia. The technical problems were relatively minor, but the delay had a critical impact on the project's political fortunes.
In 1986, Gorbachev, who had been general secretary of the Communist Party for only a year, was already advocating the sweeping economic and bureaucratic reforms that would come to be known as perestroika, or restructuring. He and his government allies were intent on reining in what they saw as ruinous levels of military spending, and had become increasingly opposed to the Soviet version of Star Wars. Gorbachev acknowledged that the American plan was dangerous, says Westwick, but warned that his country was becoming obsessed with it, and began challenging his advisors: "Maybe we shouldn't be so afraid of SDI."
In January 1987, with Skif-DM's launch just weeks away, Gorbachev's allies in the Politburo pushed through an order limiting what could be done during the demonstration flight. The spacecraft could be launched into orbit, but could not test the gas venting system or deploy any of the tracking targets. Even while the vehicle was on the pad, an order came down requiring several of the targets to be removed, but spacecraft engineers pointed out the dangers of interacting with a fueled rocket, and the order was canceled. Still, the number of experiments was reduced.
That spring, as the booster lay horizontally inside a vast assembly building at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Skif-DM was mated to its Energia rocket. Technicians then painted two names on the spacecraft. One was "Polyus." The other was "Mir-2," for the proposed civilian space station that Energia's leadership hoped to build. According to Polyus historian Lantratov, that may have been less an attempt to fool foreign spies about the mission's purpose than an advertisement for the Energia company's new project.
The rocket was rolled out to the launch pad and hoisted to the vertical launch position. Then, on the night of May 15, 1987, Energia's engines lit and the giant rocket climbed into the sky. Whereas most launches from Baikonur head for an orbit inclined 52 degrees to the equator, Polyus-Skif traveled farther north, on a 65-degree inclination. If the worst happened, this heading would keep rocket stages and debris—or the entire Skif-DM—from falling on foreign territory.
The Energia rocket performed flawlessly, gaining speed as it rose and arced out toward the northern Pacific. But the kludged nature of the Skif–DM test spacecraft, along with all the compromises and shortcuts, spelled its doom. The satellite's functional block had originally been designed for the Proton launcher, and couldn't withstand the vibration of the Energia's more powerful engines. The solution had been to mount the spacecraft with the control block at the top instead of down near the engines. Essentially, it flew into space upside down. Once the spacecraft separated from its booster, it was supposed to flip around to point away from Earth, with the control block's engines facing down toward Earth, ready to fire and push the craft into orbit.