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Mikhail Gorbachev (left, signing an arms treaty with Ronald Reagan in 1987) publicly opposed space weapons, even as the Soviet Union’s prototype laser satellite (painted black) sat on the launch pad. (Background: www.buran-energia.com; Foreground: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Soviet Star Wars

The launch that saved the world from orbiting laser battle stations.

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He recalls: "The resulting study basically said that both politically and technically, the Soviets had a very wide range of options for responding to foreseeable U.S. SDI developments." They could build more ICBMs, try to thwart the American missile shield, or attempt to drum up international opposition to the American plan. "There was some recognition that the USSR might be financially strapped if it had to initiate new major weapons systems. But there was no indication that it would be unable to respond," Thomson says.

In fact, Reagan's SDI served as an instant kick in the pants for the Soviet space weapons program, giving the aerospace design bureaus the ammunition they needed to persuade the Politburo to increase funding for Polyus and Kaskad. Both projects had been simmering at the Salyut (now Khrunichev) bureau within Energia, and experiments with high-powered lasers for anti-missile work had been under way since 1981. So far the work had been confined to the laboratory, however. Now, in the wake of Reagan's speech, the rubles started flowing for actual flight hardware. The motive wasn't so much fear that the SDI might prevent Soviet missiles from reaching their targets, but something more ominous, and weirder: a conviction that the Americans were about to set up battle stations in space.

Paranoid fantasies weren't uncommon among senior Soviet generals, according to Peter Westwick, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has written about science during the cold war. "They thought that maybe the [U.S.] space shuttle was going to be doing shallow dives into the atmosphere and deploying hydrogen bombs," he says.

Siddiqi elaborates on how the Soviets misinterpreted U.S. intentions for the space shuttle: "To the Soviets, the shuttle was the big thing. It was a sign to them that the Americans were about to move war into space." The official U.S. explanation was that the spaceplane, which debuted in 1981, was to provide routine access to orbit. By the mid-1980s, however, it was also being used to launch classified military satellites (see "Secret Space Shuttles," Aug. 2009). "The shuttle really scared the Soviets big-time because they couldn't figure why you would need a vehicle like that, one that made no economic sense," Siddiqi explains. "So they figured that there must be some unstated military rationale for the vehicle—for example, to deliver and recover large space-based weapons platforms, or to bomb Moscow." The Soviets responded to the perceived threat by building their own space shuttle, a near-exact copy of NASA's, which made a single flight and was then retired in 1993 (see "White Elephant," Dec. 2002/Jan. 2003).

Shortly after Reagan's speech, the Soviet Academy of Sciences was asked to assess whether a space-based missile shield was feasible. Evgeny Velikhov, a prominent physicist, led the study group. Their conclusion, says Westwick, was " ‘We looked at it, we studied it, we determined that it wouldn't work.' " But other Soviet scientists were more alarmist, and succeeded in convincing military and political leaders that even if the SDI wasn't an effective missile shield, it could be used offensively, to hit targets on the ground.

The idea of orbiting lasers shooting at Soviet territory was truly terrifying. According to Westwick, the theories that floated through the Kremlin about the real purpose of the SDI got batty: "Selective political assassination. Say the Politburo is standing outside on May Day and a single laser could take them all out…. These things are overhead, they're invisible, but with zero warning they could zap you."

With such frightening scenarios in mind, the Soviet military accelerated work on the Polyus-Skif laser cannon to destroy SDI satellites. Up until then, the plan had been to use a powerful laser built by the Astrofizika design bureau. But that program had fallen behind; the Astrofizika laser and its power systems were too big and heavy for existing rockets to launch. So when Soviet engineers were told to pick up the pace on Skif, they came up with an interim plan. They would adapt a small, one-megawatt carbon dioxide laser that had already been tested on an Il-76 transport aircraft as a weapon against missiles. In August 1984, the new spacecraft was approved and designated Skif-D, the "D" standing for the Russian word for "demonstration." By January 1986, the Politburo had designated the project as one of the Soviet space program's highest-priority satellites.

Meanwhile, U.S. scientists and engineers were having their own problems with space-based lasers. As research proceeded on projects like Zenith Star, which investigated the problems of placing a two-megawatt chemical laser in orbit, the challenges of building and launching such systems became clearer. The SDI organization funded studies of particle beams and an X-ray laser that would be set off by a nuclear explosion, but none of these projects ever came close to being deployed. By 1986 the SDI leadership was shifting its attention away from orbiting lasers and toward small "kinetic kill vehicles," which could bring down enemy satellites by crashing into them.

The Soviets, though, stayed the course, and kept working on the demonstration version of their space-based laser, with a target launch date of early 1987. Engineers at the Salyut design bureau soon realized that the laser and its power system—even the smaller one already tested on an aircraft—were still too big for the Proton rocket. But a bigger launcher was in the pipeline: The Energia rocket, named after its design bureau, was being built to carry the new Buran space shuttle into orbit. Energia could carry 95 tons to space, so it could carry Skif-D. The rocket was switched. To keep costs down, engineers looked for other existing hardware to modify and incorporate, including elements of Buran and a part of the canceled Almaz military space station designated the TKS, which later became the core module of the Mir space station.

Skif-D grew into a Frankenstein's monster: 131 feet long, more than 13 feet in diameter, and weighing 210,000 pounds, more massive than NASA's Skylab space station. The complex consisted of what the Russians called a "functional block" and a "purposeful module." The functional block was equipped with small rocket engines to place the vehicle into its final orbit. It also included a power system, using solar panels borrowed from Almaz. The purposeful module carried carbon dioxide tanks and two turbo-generators to produce the laser's power, as well as the heavy rotating turret, which pointed the beam. The Polyus spacecraft was built long and thin so that it could fit on the side of the Energia, attached to its central fuel tank.

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