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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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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.

Skif-DM separated on cue, the spent Energia fell away, and the protective shroud over the front of the spacecraft separated. Then the entire spacecraft, as tall as a 12-story building, began its gentle pitch maneuver. Its tail end, actually the front of the spacecraft, swung up through 90 degrees, through 180 degrees…then kept going. The massive spacecraft tumbled end over end for two full revolutions, then stopped with its nose pointing down toward Earth. In the rush to launch such a complicated spacecraft, the designers had missed a tiny software error. The engines fired, and Skif-DM headed back into the atmosphere it had just escaped, quickly overheating and breaking into burning pieces over the Pacific Ocean.

In the West, the debut of the Energia super-rocket was reported as a partial success; though the satellite had failed, the launcher itself operated perfectly. The U.S. government almost certainly had intelligence sensors pointed at the rocket as it flew, but what the CIA or other agencies concluded about the payload remains classified.

The failure of Polyus-Skif, combined with its immense expense, gave the program's opponents the ammunition they needed to kill it. Further Skif flights were canceled. Hardware being prepared was either scrapped or shoved to the sides of giant warehouses. And the laser never got close enough to launching for anyone to judge whether it would have worked.

In his history of the project, Lantratov quotes Yuri Kornilov, the Skif-DM lead designer: "Of course, no one received any prizes or awards for their feverish, two-year-long, under-the-deadline work. The hundreds of teams that had created Polyus were not given an award or a word of thanks." In fact, after the Skif-DM fiasco, some were reprimanded or demoted.

We still don't know the entire story. "Even today, there's a lot of sensitivity about the whole program," says Siddiqi. "Russians don't like to talk too much about it. And our understanding of Soviet responses to SDI still remains murky. It's clear that there was a lot of internal debate within the Soviet military-industrial elite about the effectiveness of space weapons. And the fact that the Soviets came so close to actually launching a weapon platform suggests that the hardliners were in the driver's seat. It's scary to think what might have happened if Polyus had actually made it to orbit."

Russian space engineers, who are known for being pack rats, may have had the last laugh. The first component of the International Space Station to be launched was the Russian Zarya ("Dawn") module, also known as the Functional Cargo Block. The vehicle was built in the mid-1990s, under contract to NASA, by the enterprising engineers at the Khrunichev factory, who produced it on time and on budget. The main purpose of Zarya is to supply electrical power and to reboost the station, the same role the Skif's functional block would have served. Some Soviet space watchers believe that Zarya began life as a flight spare originally built for the Polyus program. Dusting off old but perfectly usable hardware—or even just blueprints—would certainly have helped Khrunichev meet its production schedule for the space station module during the economic chaos that prevailed in Russia after the cold war. It's only speculation, but if true, it would mean that the old Soviet Union ultimately succeeded in getting a tiny piece of its Star Wars system into orbit. The irony is that the American taxpayer picked up the tab.

Dwayne A. Day is a program officer with the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council. Robert G. Kennedy III is president of Ultimax Group Inc., in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The authors wish to thank Anton Smirnov for his assistance in translating the Lantranov article.

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