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Salyut-8/Mir Military Experiments

By Marcia S. Smith, Formerly with the, Science Policy Research Division of the Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service




The issue of whether the Soviets use their space stations for mili­ tary activities is highly controversial. It is extremely difficult to distinguish between certain military and civilian space activities in the first place. A camera that makes repeated observations of the Earth's surface can support both—it simply provides data that either community can use to its best advantage. Materials process­ing experiments are designed to discover what materials can be produced better in the absence of gravity. The materials can be used in either the defense industry or for consumer goods. At­ tempts to categorize activities as military or civilian are often rooted in politics, and the military/civilian distinction is in the eye of the beholder. Just about anything can be counted as military if someone wants to portray a space program as having a military slant, and vice-verse.

The Soviet position on whether Mir is used for military experi­ ments was succinctly stated by Cosmonaut Leonid Kizim on April 7, 1986 during his Soyuz T-15 mission: "The program for our work on board the Mir scientific station does not contain any experi­ments for military purposes. As for the statements by U.S. officials, it seems to us that they are being made in order to justify their own plans for transferring the arms race to space." 74

The "statements by U.S. officials" included those in the 1987 edi­ tion of "Soviet Military Power," an annual report issued by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The report described the Mir modules as providing the Soviets "with greater flexibility in per­ forming missions such as reconnaissance, targeting, and military related R&D" as well as astrophysics, biology and materials proc­ essing. The report further asserts that:

Soviet literature reports that the military applications of remote sensing, oceanog­ raphy, meteorology, and geodesy have been the focus of repeated cosmonaut investi­gations. Even subjects such as astronomical observations, also performed by cosmo­ nauts, have military use. Such investigations, for example, can provide data useful for maintaining the orientation of certain equipment to an accuracy of a few arc- seconds, a capability needed to aim directed-energy weapons.

The ability to rendezvous and manually dock with uncooperative spacecraft, which Soviet cosmonauts demonstrated in 1985 and 1986, also has military applica­ tions. Cosmonauts use a laser rangefinder, a night vision device, and an optical sight while performing this operation. The Soviets state that this procedure will allow the rescue of cosmonauts stranded in orbit, but it could also be useful for re­pairing friendly satellites and for inspecting and disabling enemy satellites.

Conducting materials-processing experiments is an important cosmonaut function that has both civilian and military applications. Soviet efforts in this field, however, have concentrated on the production of substances with military significant applica­tions regarding the development of semiconductor devices, infrared and optical de­ tectors, and electro-optical systems.

Another crucial cosmonaut activity is Earth observation, which has implications for reconnaissance and targeting applications. The Soviets report that their cosmo­nauts have used visual observations, camera, radars, spectrometers, and multispec tral electro-optical sensors in their observations from SALYUT space stations. These experiments suggest the Soviets are evaluating their ability to locate, identify, and track targets from outer space as the first step toward designing a space weapons platform for use against targets in space and on Earth. Such a platform may eventually be used for ASAT [antisatellite] and ballistic missile defense operations as well as for space station defense. 76

The considerable amount of Soviet literature reviewed for this report (as well as for the previous editions) does not make any mention of military applications of these activities, however. DOD s assertion that "Soviet literature reports" on such military applica­ tions is surprising.

The DOD approach to analyzing the Soviet space program is con­ troversial. It is arguable that the DOD interpretation is inconsist­ent unless the definitions of "military" activities are equally ap­ plied to U.S. space activities. If DOD argues that virtually every­ thing the cosmonauts are doing is or can be related to military goals, they would logically have to count as U.S. "military" space activities not only the programs DOD conducts (for reconnaissance, communications, navigation, weather, geodesy, ASAT and ballistic missile defense), but also all the activities performed by the Nation­ al Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, in the Depart­ ment of Commerce). The Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shut­ tle programs, the Skylab space station especially, the automated Landsat land remote sensing satellites, NOAA's weather satellites, the many series of astronomical satellites (such as the High Energy Astronomy Observatories, the Infrared Astronomy Satellite, and so forth) could equally be described in the terms DOD uses in the above extract. Their primary purpose, however, is typically consid­ ered civilian/scientific, with the results disseminated openly.

If the same standards are applied to the Soviet space station ac­tivities as have been historically applied to U.S. space activities, then Mir would be considered civilian, like Salyut 1, 4, 6 and 7 before it. This is not to suggest that there are no potential military applications of the Mir experiments, or that there are no specific military experiments being conducted on Mir which the Soviets do not publicize. Rather, these would not be considered the main focus of the space station experiments, and that the majority of work conducted on Mir appears to be in what would normally be counted as civilian applications in this country.

It is interesting to note that in the debate over the need for a U.S. space station (which NASA is now building in cooperation with Europe, Canada and Japan), DOD has consistently and em­ phatically stated that it has no need for the space station. 76 DOD officials have vigorously intervened in the negotiations between the United States and its international space station partners to insure that they can have access to the space station in the future if they find a use for it, but repeatedly assert that they can accomplish all of their mission objectives better with automated spacecraft.

Contrary to the position expressed in "Soviet Military Power," Charles Cook, Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Plans and Policy has said that the Air Force is "still uncertain as to what military value" the Soviets derive from Mir. He does not believe Mir's existence is a "militarily compelling justification for U.S. military involvement in the development of a similar com­ plex," but acknowledged that "maybe the Soviets have found some­ thing that we don't know about." 77

There have been Western allegations that the Soviets conduct very specific military experiments on space stations. One that has been attributed to activities on Mir surfaced in a July 15, 1987 Wall Street Journal editorial. Referencing "still classified U.S. in­ telligence," the editorial charged that a Soviet ICBM was targeted and tracked by a laser onboard Mir. 78 The editorial said that the test illustrated the practicality of using space-based lasers as part of a ballistic missile defense system, and complained that the Reagan Administration was unwilling to publicize the test for fear it would upset plans for a Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Two days later, unnamed "intelligence sources" were cited in Defense Daily as denying the Journal story. The newsletter stated: "reports of a Soviet test of a laser targeting and tracking system from the Mir space station, using a Soviet ICBM as a target, did not take place. The denial directly contradicted the report that the Administration is withholding disclosure of the event for fear of its effect on the development of plans for a summit." 79 A subsequent item in the newsletter quoted U.S. Soviet space analyst Nicholas Johnson as saying that there is no physical evidence the Soviets are conduct­ ing space-based weapons experiments. 80



74 Moscow Television Service, 1430 GMT, April 7, 1986.

75. U.S. Department of Defense. Soviet Military Power-1987. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1987. pp.56-68. These assertions were repeated in DOD's November 1987 booklet "The Soviet Space Challenge."

76 Smith, M. Space Stations. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Issue Brief 85209 (continuously updated)

77 Defense Daily, May 11, 1987, p. 58.

78 The "Mir" Experiment. Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1987, editorial page.

79 Intelligence Says Mir Laser Test Did Not Take Place. Defense Daily, July 17, 1987, pp. 90- 91.

80 Soviet Space-Based Defense—No Physical Evidence. Defense Daily, July 17, 1987, p. 91.

Komarov's death was, of course, a great shock to the Russians, especially since only three months earlier the United States had lost the crew of Apollo 1 in a pad fire as they were running tests a few days prior to launch. Although the Soviet Union sent a message of sympathy, it was coupled with claims that the U.S. accident was a direct outgrowth of a reckless race to be first on the Moon and the greed of U.S. private enterprise willing to cut comers in safety and quality, even for manned flights. The statements implied that such considerations were nonexistent in the Soviet Union .

Although the frailty of human planning was revealed in the Apollo fire, which only in retrospect became so clearly deficient in design, the Soyuz 1 accident showed that accidents are not tied to economic or political systems, but to design, quality control, and sometimes simply lack of knowledge or human error.

Just as the American manned space effort was delayed for almost two years for investigations into the Apollo fire, the Russian manned program waited for 18 months before seeing another launch.

2. Kosmos 186 arid 188

Just in time to highlight the 50th anniversary of the Soviet State in early November 1967, the Soviet Union conducted a double space operation with unmanned Soyuz prototypes. On October 27, 1967 Kosmos186 was put into a low circular orbit for a period of four days. While Kosmos 186 waited in orbit, Kosmos 188 was launched on October 30 for a three-day flight. This was a direct ascent, first orbit rendezvous launch, which brought it within about 24 km of Kosmos 186. At this point the ships were programmed to conduct a completely automatic close rendezvous and docking on the side of the world away from Soviet territory, later passing over the U.S.S.R. in docked configuration.

When the seeking devices on both ships found each other, they were oriented into a head-on position and Kosmos 186 became the active vessel, moving in until its docking probe was inserted into the receptacle of the other ship. Further automatic devices then completed a tight lock and made electrical connections so the two ships could operate as a single unit. They remained docked for 3.5 hours and after 2.5 orbits accomplished an equally automatic undocking over Soviet territory and resumed separate flights. A day later Kosmos 186 made a soft landing in the usual recovery zone and two days after that Kosmos 188 was recovered in a similar fashion.

This successful operation showed that modifications had been made in Soyuz and drawings were finally released to the public showing the approximate appearance of the two ships as they approached each other. (One must say approximately because it later developed that some essential elements of the design had been airbrushed out, and it was many months before the actual shapes became apparent.) The first drawings showed a cigar-shaped craft with docking collar and probe or receptacle at the forward end, and a propulsion unit at the other. Special acquisition and distance-measuring radars extended out from the ships on hinged lattice-structure arms. Most distinctive were the solar panels which unfold after orbit is attained and look like rectangular gull wings. The Russians developed these as a source of electricity as opposed to the American fuel cells.

3. Kosmos 212 and 213

On April 14 and 15, 1968, Kosmos 212 and 213 respectively were placed in a low circular orbit, each remaining for five days. Prior to the second launch, Kosmos 212 made slight orbital corrections which brought it very nearly over the launch site to simplify rendezvous. At the time the carrier rocket was separated from the Kosmos 213 payload, the controllers on Earth had accomplished a first orbit, direct ascent rendezvous which brought Kosmos 213 to within 5 km of Kosmos 212, and the velocity difference was only about 108 km per hour. After mutual radar search and lock-on, Kosmos 212 became the active partner and completed the exercise. Main propulsion which could be turned on and off was used for most of the closing, but when the ships were within a few hundred meters of each other, low thrust propulsion was employed, and the difference in their relative speed was between 0.5 and 1 km per hour. This time, by Soviet claim, docking was conducted over the Soviet Union (this is hard to reconcile with other Soviet data), but the follow-up rigid mechanical lock and the inter-linking of electrical connections occurred some minutes later over the Pacific Ocean, 47 minutes after launch. On the next pass over the Soviet Union external television cameras on the ships showed how they looked.

The ships remained linked together for 3 hours 50 minutes, and then undocked on radio command over Soviet territory. Each ship then made further maneuvers repeatedly to continue group flight, but at a distance sufficient to avoid mutual interference.

4. Kosmos 238

On August 28, 1968 , still another flight was made which had the orbital path and radio frequency characteristics of a manned precursor. It was never commented on by the Russians after the initial launch announcement under the Kosmos cover name, but after four days in orbit it was called down. Apparently it represented a final check of on-board systems as a step in man-rating.

5. Soyuz 2

Soyuz 2 was launched without any immediate announcement on October 25, 1968 and was placed in the typical low parking orbit of the other Kosmos precursor flights. It remained in orbit for three days and was the target for the manned flight which followed. Despite its unmanned status, the mission was given a Soyuz name instead of the Kosmos designation for unknown reasons.

6. Soyuz 3

On October 26, 1968 , 18 months after the ill-fated flight of Komarov, the Soviet Union launched Soyuz 3 carrying Colonel Georgiy Beregovoy. After achieving a co-orbit with Soyuz 2, the ship made an automatic approach to within 200 meters. After that, the pilot took over manual controls and made repeated approaches toward Soyuz 2, coming very close and reducing the differences in velocity to less than one kilometer per hour. For some unknown reason he was unable to accomplish actual docking although this was clearly his objective. (1) Television coverage of these operations was provided by external cameras.

More details about the ship itself emerged, revealing that there were two passenger compartments, a fact less clear from earlier drawings. Beregovoy slept in a separate work compartment, while piloting was done in the command module, which was also the recoverable part of the ship. The total volume of the two compartments, which were connected by an air lock, was about 9 cubic meters. The ship had a 30-day stay time capability and some versions could fly up to 1,300 km above the Earth. The descent portion had special aerodynamic qualities which permitted precise landings at pre-selected points, and the lift cut the G-load to between 3 and 4 G's compared with 8 to 10 G's for a ballistic reentry, although the latter could still be used in an emergency to save time.

Retrofire was provided from a 400-kilogram-thrust liquid rocket engine with a completely duplicate engine in reserve. If both failed, normally the residual fuel of the orientation steering rockets would be sufficient to return a ship from orbit. On reentering, a drogue parachute was deployed at 9 km, followed by the opening of the main parachute, with a second parachute in reserve. Just before final touchdown, at a height of about one meter, a gunpowder rocket was fired as a final brake to soften landing.

During his four day flight, Beregovoy monitored the flight systems, gathered geophysical data, and took pictures of the Earth's surface for resource studies. Except for the strong implication (although explicitly denied) that docking was intended and failed, the flight was a good proving effort for the Soyuz hardware. At a much later date, a specific weight of 6,575 kg was filed for the ship.

7. Soyuz 4 and 5

Soyuz 4 was launched on January 14, 1969 , a novel launch time for the Russians since until now they had avoided the winter season when either an aborted launch or off-course landing might mean a delay in crew rescue under severe weather conditions. However, not only did the ship have an enhanced water-landing capability so a sea landing in the tropics could occur if necessary, but the Russians were by now fully confident of their systems. Put into the typical low Soyuz orbit, the ship was piloted by Col. Vladimir Shatalov. The next day Soyuz 5 was launched with a three man crew: Lt. Col. Boris Volynov commander: Master of Technical Sciences Aleksey Yeliseyev, flight engineer; and Lt. Col. Yevgeniy Khrunov research engineer.

After a number of orbital corrections by both ships, the docking exercise began on Soyuz 5's 18th orbit, and Soyuz 4's 34th. The automatic system brought the ships to within 100 meters of each other whereupon Shatalov completed a manual approach. On the 35th orbit of Soyuz 5, Khrunov and Yeliseyev donned pressure suits and self-contained life support systems, entered the orbital work compartment, sealed the inner hatch, then opened their outer hatch, and transferred to Soyuz 4, floating and using handrails on the outside of the crafts for assistance. Both men were outside for about an hour, with television cameras recording the entire affair and constant radio communications maintained. Khrunov made the transfer over South America while Yeliseyev did so over the Soviet Union . In turn, the orbital work compartment of Soyuz 4 served as an airlock.

The ships remained docked for 4 hours 35 minutes. Soyuz 4 returned to Earth after three days, now carrying a crew of three instead or one, and Soyuz 5 landed after three days with only one man aboard instead of three. Soyuz 4 and 5 were later registered as weighing 6,625 kg and 6,585 kg respectively, for a total weight of 13,210 kg. As a result of maneuvers and usage of other expendables their combined mass at the time of docking is estimated as being 286 kg lighter, or 12,924 kgs.

The combined ships have always been hailed in the Soviet press as the world's first space station in which a total of four men were housed. Although the combination can be considered a station in that a fair amount of working space was provided by the orbital work compartments, the general view of a space station suggests a longer duration of usefulness and no need for EVA to go from one work compartment to another. The ships' orbit was low enough that it would have decayed in about ten days, and the main life support systems, solar panels and orbital adjustment rockets were in the after-service modules, separated from the orbital compartment by the command modules. Thus the "station" could not have been left behind in orbit for visits from other crews.

New pictures were released showing the true shape of Soyuz: a spherical work cabin at the front end separated by a hatch from a bell-shaped command module with its slightly convex reentry shield facing aft, and at the rear, the cylindrical service and propulsion module with its two solar panels.

8. Soyuz 6, 7and 8

Launched on three successive days, Soyuz 6, 7 and 8 were to perform group flight with orbital assembly the prime mission, Soyuz 7 and 8 were meant to dock with each other for joint, experiments, but Soyuz 6 was almost incidental to the mission since it could have flown any time after Soyuz 4 and 5. Reasons why the Russians might have waited include the possibility that other projects had a higher priority for the tracking system and data central during the middle months of the year. Second, putting it up in conjunction with the next two Soyuz flights would reduce the cost of maintaining ocean tracking ships on station in all parts of the world. Third, by having three manned ships up at one time, the abilities of the computers and operations people to handle a much more complex data management system was given a good test. Fourth, having seven men up at once has a certain appeal as a portent of things to come.

The flights were terminated after five days each. There were rumors in the West that other ships were to have been launched and that the flight was to have run much longer. But it should be noted that before the first launch occurred, Moscow unofficial reports said that three ships would be involved with at least six cosmonauts, for a total period of one week. (2)

a. Soyuz 6. - Launched on October 11, 1969 , this flight was piloted by Lt. Col. Georgiy Shonin and flight engineer Valeriy Kubasov. It not only tested the Soyuz systems, but also contributed to gathering Earth resources data. Its most important and significant experiment, though, dealt with alternate methods for welding in the high vacuum and weightlessness of outer space.

The Russians consider welding as necessary in future space operations if very large permanent stations are to be assembled and if such stations are also to be used for the assembly of expeditions to visit the planets. Thus they built into the Soyuz 6 work space remote handling equipment to conduct welding experiments, after first opening the cabin to vacuum conditions. The welding unit Vulkan, was controlled remotely by electric cable. They tested three methods: a low pressure compressed arc, an electron beam, and arc welding with a consumable electrode. Only the electron beam experiment was reported as categorically successful. Soyuz-6 carried no docking equipment.

b. Soyuz 7.—This launch occurred on October 12 with a crew of Lt. Col. Anatoliy Filipchenko, Flight Engineer Vladislav Volkov, and Research Engineer Viktor Gorbatko. The ship carried docking equipment and was meant as the passive target for Soyuz 8. Aside from group flight activities, its principal task was Earth resources and related research.

c. Soyuz 8—Launched the day after Soyuz 7. The flight was commanded by Col. Vladimir Shatalov, accompanied by Flight Engineer Aleksey Yeliseyev, both veterans of the Soyuz 4/5 operation. Designed as the active partner in docking with the larger crew in Soyuz 7, (3) many maneuvers were made between the two ships but docking was never accomplished. Although Soviet accounts vary from outright denial of docking plans to evasion on this point, it seems likely that a pair of ships equipped with docking gear instead of other experiments are meant to dock. What is unclear is whether automatic docking routines would have been successful as in the double Kosmos missions, or whether a mechanical problem precluded either automatic or manual docking.

9. Soyuz 9

Soyuz 9 was launched on June 1, 1970 from Tyuratam with Col. Andriyan Nikolayev as pilot and Vitally Sevastyanov as flight engineer. This ship lacked rendezvous and docking systems and was sent Solo flight to test for a longer period of time than other flights, the capacity of both the hardware and the human crew. On the fifth orbit the ship was raised from its initial orbit to protect its orbital life from early decay. On the l7th orbit, the perigee was raised again to establish a still more durable circular orbit.

Medical-biological research effects of long term exposure to space conditions were probably the primary mission of this flights but it also afforded a good opportunity to enhance capabilities related to Earth resources observation. These concentrated on both visual observation and photographing geological and geographic objects, weather formations, water surfaces, snow and ice cover, and conducting other ground studies.

Onboard television cameras gave the ground controllers and Soviet public live coverage of activities on the ship during some orbital passes. The crew found the ship comfortable, and slept for eight hours at a stretch on couches in the work compartment using sleeping bags. A stove provided hot meals of a wide range of conventional foods, and shaving was accomplished with both the shaving cream method and a dry electric razor. Lacking a shower they resorted to twice-daily rubdowns. A vacuum cleaner was used to maximize the cleanliness of their living spaces.

As far as the ship itself was concerned, the Russians claimed that the 14 square meters of solar panels with chemical buffer batteries were more reliable than the American fuel cells used in Gemini and Apollo. They also felt that their use of two cabins made it possible to provide a work and sleep area with no threat of clutter and interference to the flight and recovery operations conducted in the command module. Also, the pilot would have no need to put on a pressure suit if his companion(s) conducted EVA exercises through a hatch from the work module.

On the 14th day of flight, the orbit was lowered as a precaution for later recovery, particularly if retrofire should not be successful. But retrofire occurred as expected, and the command module separated from the work and service compartments, for landing on June 19 in Kazakhstan . The crew was immediately picked up and although they were in good condition, after 18 days in space they had a harder time adjusting to full Earth weight than American crews who had stayed up for 14 days. The men were taken to a new quarantine laboratory whose description sounded very much like the Houston lunar receiving laboratory. In the later Moscow celebrations, Nikolayev was promoted to Major General.

The following experiments were conducted:

Medical.- The crew made measurements of their condition before and after exercise, noting arterial pressure, pulse and respiration. They checked the contrast sensitivity of their eyes and made many tests of their vestibulary sensitivity in weightlessness. Samples of air breathed before and after exercising were collected in plastic bags for analysis on Earth, with expectations that the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen would give a measure of energy expenditure. The dynamics of pain sensitivity were checked and maximum hand strength tested with a dynamometer.

During the 13th day of flight, a test of Sevastyanov's mental capabilities was made by exposing him to a simulated set of commands which had been preprogrammed into the on-board computer, as a comparison with his corresponding capabilities earlier in the flight.

Other Biological .—Experiments were performed relating to the micro and macro genesis of flowering plants, the division of cells of chlorella, the propagation of bacterial cultures in liquid media, and the propagation and development of insects.

Earth Resources .—On the fifth day the crew watched a large tropical storm in the Indian Ocean and observed surf on a continental shore. The next day they observed forest fires in Africa near Lake Chad .

They used both black and white and multi spectral color film to photograph the Earth's surface which was expected to throw light on problems of identification of different kinds of Earth rock and soil, the moisture content of glaciers, the location of schools of fish, and estimation of timber reserves.

The crew also made studies of aerosol particles in the atmosphere by observing twilight glow.

Navigation .—Astronavigation was practiced by locking onto Vega or Canopus and then using a sextant to measure its relation to the Earth horizon. Spectrographic measurements of the horizon were taken to define it better for navigation purposes. Arcturus and Deneb were later added as sighting targets for navigation tests.

On the 4th day, using on-board navigation and measuring equipment, the orbital elements were refined to three decimal places—that is, to an exact number of meters for apogee and perigee, to an exact number of thousandths of a minute for period, and to the exact number of thousands of a degree in inclination.

Astrophysical.—In addition to observing celestial bodies, the cosmonauts made photographic studies of the Moon.




1. Moscow Radio October 28, 1968 , 0200 GMT.

2. First reported by Paris AFP on Oct. 9, 1969 , naming three ships and docking; then reported on Oct. 10 by Moscow UPI as Imminent; then stated on Oct. 13 by the Yugoslav agency Tanyug as being for one week. All these rumors were confirmed by events.

3. TASS, October 15, 1969 , 1846 GMT.

•Ms. Smith Is an analyst in science and technology. Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.

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