The world’s first space station, Salyut-1, launched into orbit 40 years ago today. A Proton rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying the empty Salyut-1 space station on April 19, 1971. The launch was supposed to mark the 10th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, but technical problems delayed the launch, so Salyut-1 missed the big day by a week. Cosmonauts boarded the station for the first (and only) time weeks later, on June 7, to begin a 23-day mission of science experiments, secret military technology tests, and new human spaceflight records.
Those experiments included studies of how people’s bodies responded to long-term spaceflight and what sorts of tasks crews could actually perform in microgravity. Salyut-1’s crew also studied Earth’s geology and weather from above and studied the electromagnetic environment in space. Cosmonaut Viktor Patsayev became the first person to use a telescope in space while he operated the station’s Orion 1 Space Observatory, an ultraviolet telescope.
Tragedy In Space
Tragically, when the crew of Soyuz-11 boarded Salyut-1, they also unwittingly stepped into their final 23 days of life. A few weeks earlier, the crew of Soyuz 10 tried to dock with the station on April 22 and failed; they turned out to be the lucky ones. After the Soyuz-11 crew finished their mission, they reboarded their capsule and pulled away from the station, bound for home. But a pressure-equalization valve on the Soyuz capsule opened too early, depriving the crew of air long before they returned to Earth’s atmosphere.
Cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev are still the only people known to have died above the Karman line, the internationally-recognized boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, about 100 km (62 miles) above the ground. Their bodies returned to Earth in the Soyuz capsule, which parachuted to Earth in Kazakhstan. That’s when the recovery crew opened the hatch and discovered the three dead cosmonauts.
For the next several months, the station the three men had left behind orbited in empty silence, waiting for the Soviet space program to send another crew. Engineers on the ground were busy redesigning the Soyuz capsules to fit cosmonauts wearing bulky pressure suits, which they previously hadn’t had room for. If the Soyuz-11 cosmonauts had been wearing pressure suits when the capsule depressurized, they would have survived, an investigation found. Future Soyuz mission required crews to wear pressure suits, but crews never returned to Salyut-1. The Soviet space program de-orbited the station in October 1971.
Spies And Guns In Space
Salyut-1 was officially a civilian mission, but at the height of the Cold War, the rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union sometimes blurred the distinction between scientific and military goals in space. The Space Race wasn’t just a competition for the bragging rights that came with being the first to put a person in orbit or land on the Moon; it was also a race for the strategic edge that might come from figuring out how to use space for military purposes. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans putting nuclear weapons in space or testing weapons on the Moon or other celestial bodies (whether planets like Mars or asteroids like Vesta). But reconnaissance was – and is – still a major impetus for military space programs.
Salyut-1’s crew tested a few pieces of military technology during the flight: an optical instrument for finding the range to a target, an ultraviolet instrument for identifying rocket exhaust plumes, and another instrument for detecting radiation.
That sort of activity was fairly common on both sides of the Space Race through the 1980s and 1990s. The key, from a legal and diplomatic standpoint, was that rangefinders and radiation detectors aren’t actually weapons. The U.S. Air Force’s uncrewed X-37B spaceplane still regularly tests technologies like new thrusters, materials, and instruments which aren’t weapons but which often end up on military hardware like reconnaissance satellites.
The Salyut-1 station itself began with a military program, part of that much more menacing side of the Space Race. In 1963, the U.S. Air Force announced that it was developing a crewed space station called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which was billed as a technology demonstrator for what military crews could do in orbit. Think of it like an early – and crewed – equivalent of the current X-37B. The highly classified reality was that MOL was also meant as a reconnaissance outpost in orbit, crewed by Air Force astronauts.
MOL’s military astronaut crews were to have included Robert Lawrence, the first Black astronaut selected for spaceflight. But Lawrence died during a training flight here on Earth in 1967, a few months after his selection for the program. Meanwhile the MOL was losing the constant competition with the Vietnam War for military funding, and automated systems were getting better and cheaper, so the Air Force cancelled the program in 1969 after a single uncrewed flight test in 1966.
The Soviet Union’s reacted to the 1963 announcement by developing its own series crewed reconnaissance station, called Almaz. When Salyut-1 launched in 1971, its four compartments were a slightly modified version of the Almaz design. And three of the later Salyut stations, despite being officially listed as civilian research flights, were actually military flights under the Almaz program.
Each of those 3 Almaz space stations packed a 23mm cannon – originally the tail gun from a Tu-22 bomber – mounted on its belly. Because the cannon was on a fixed mounting, not a swivelling turret, the whole station had to fire its thrusters and rotate in order to aim. Salyut-2 lost attitude control and fell back to Earth before a crew could board, but Salyut-3 and Salyut-5 are the only armed, crewed military spacecraft ever flown – that history actually knows about, anyway.
Salyut-3 even fired its 23mm aircraft cannon in space in 1974. Engineers worried that firing the gun would cause dangerous amounts of vibration and loud noise, but after the Salyut-3 crew departed, they remotely fired 20 rounds from the cannon into space.
War And Peace
By 1978, Soviet military planners had realized the same thing the U.S. Air Force had concluded a decade earlier: automated systems were just as effective as actual reconnaissance crews, and they were much cheaper to build and maintain. The technology developed for Almaz got rerouted to civilian flights. When the Mir space station’s core module launched in 1986, it was based on the original Salyut/Almaz design, and in fact was officially designaed DOS-7, the 7th spacecraft in the series that began with DOS-1, or Salyut-1.
The final station in the series, technically designated DOS-8, is now the Zvezda service module on the International Space Station, which holds the station’s life support systems. The same basic hull design that began as a military spy platform and fired the first weapons in space is now the beating heart of the biggest symbol for international cooperation in space.