The Almaz Drama

The loss of DOS-2 was a blow to the Kremlin, which wished to have another Soviet station in orbit before the Americans launched their Skylab in May 1973. But there was still hope, because there was another project - the military Almaz (OPS). Could this be prepared in time? If so, then by naming it Salyut 2 the impression could be given that this was an improved form of the DOS design, and thus hide its military role. Vladimir Chelomey objected to having his station bear the name of Salyut, but accepted that it was important that the world did not realise that there was a military space station programme.5 When ordered to proceed, the engineers at the TsKBM and the Khrunichev factory worked around the clock to prepare the first Almaz (No. 101-1). The sudden sense of urgency came as a welcome relief to all concerned.6

In September 1972, when OPS-1 was undergoing its final checks at the TsKBM, four two-man crews were selected from the 28 military cosmonauts assigned to this programme:

• Pavel Popovich and Yuriy Artyukhin

• Boris Volynov and Vitaliy Zholobov

• Gennadiy Sarafanov and Lev Dyomin

• Vyacheslav Zudov and Valeriy Rozhdestvenskiy

In contrast to the DOS crews, which combined military and civilian cosmonauts, only Air Force officers were to fly to OPS-1.

5 The irony, of course, was that Salyut was a civilian development of Almaz, and as Ustinov had realised early on, launching a scientific station first would serve as a maskirovka to hide the real project.

6 Rodion Malinovskiy and Andrey Grechko (Ministers of Defence from 1957 to 1967 and 1967 to 1976 respectively) and Marshals Konstantin Vershinin and Pavel Kutakhov (Commanders in Chief of the Air Force from 1957 to 1969 and 1969 to 1984) had persistently urged that that the construction of the first Almaz station be accelerated.

After the station was delivered to the cosmodrome in January 1973 the TsKBM's engineers braved the extremely cold weather to make the final checks of its systems. Meanwhile, Chelomey attended the final crew training at the TsPK in February, and then all four crews flew to Baykonur for the launch.

Ten days after the station was launched, Popovich and Artyukhin were to follow in Soyuz 12. The docking was scheduled for the next day, on the station's 160th orbit. But with the Proton standing on the pad and loaded with propellant, it was announced that owing to a technical problem the launch of Soyuz 12 would not be possible until the start of the second week of May. It was decided to go ahead and launch the station on schedule, and OPS-1 lifted off on 3 April 1973 after three months of preparation. Eight and a half years had elapsed since the decision to start the Almaz programme! In announcing the launch, TASS named the station Salyut 2 and said that it was to continue its predecessor's programme of scientific research. Chelomey cleverly ordered that the name Salyut 2 be written on the ring on the third stage of the Proton rocket that supported the station in order that when the station shed this ring upon entering orbit it would fly on bearing only 'CCCP' in red on its side. The Kremlin was delighted to have successfully launched a station ahead of the Americans.

In the first phase of the flight the TsUP controllers at Yevpatoriya checked all the onboard systems, confirming that the solar panels and antennas were deployed and that the interior environment was normal. After two manoeuvres, the initial obit of 215 x 260 km was increased to 261 x 296 km. All was well when the station left the communication zone on 14 April, but when it re-entered the zone on its 193rd orbit on 15 April it was found that the main telemetry system was inoperative. When the backup system was turned on this indicated that the internal pressure had fallen and that the force of the venting air had disturbed the station in space. As the controllers watched, the station's systems failed one by one, and soon it was dead.

It was initially supposed that the air leak was caused by a problem with the supply system, which was in the propulsion compartment. This was accepted by the State Commission. The experts at Chelomey's TsKBM and the Khrunichev factory that manufactured the station initiated a detailed analysis of all the data which had been received from the station. While this investigation was underway, on 30 April the American magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology said that the station broke up on 14 April, and many of the fragments had since burned up in the atmosphere. At that time, preparations for a joint mission of an Apollo and a Soyuz in 1975 were at an advanced stage and Konstantin Bushuyev, the TsKBEM's technical director for this project, returned from America with tracking data for the third stage of the Proton launch vehicle and other objects which had entered orbit with the station. In the American catalogue the station was object 1973-017A. Of the 24 other objects listed, 17 had re-entered the atmosphere prior to 14 April. What of those remaining? And were there any objects that had not been detected by the American radars? The TsKBM engineers had expected only the third stage and the joint ring to reach orbit along with the station. The ring was jettisoned 774.5 seconds into the flight, and its departure was observed by a TV camera on the station. It separated cleanly, and did not break up. The fact that the station functioned perfectly until 14 April meant that it could not have been the source of so many fragments. The analysts examined the third stage. This was jettisoned 584.4 seconds into the flight and separated in such a manner that after the first orbit it ought to have been 110 km from the station, and then re-entered the atmosphere six days later. But according to the Americans it was gone after three days! Might it have exploded? Might some of the debris from this explosion have hit the station? At engine shutdown, the third stage should have held about 290 kg of propellant, and this could have caused an explosion. If a fragment of the stage had hit the station, it would have done so at a speed of about 300 m/s. Based on a model of such an explosion, a ballistic analysis verified that 21 of the objects that were tracked by the Americans could have been pieces of the third stage. It was also found that the orbits of five of these pieces intersected that of the station. In view of this analysis, the State Commission revised its conclusion and accepted that OPS-1 was crippled by being struck by a piece of debris. The fact that the station had operated perfectly prior to this suggested that its design was sound.

In hindsight, Mishin's procrastination in preparing the Soyuz which was to deliver Popovich and Artyukhin to the station precluded yet another tragedy. On the original plan, the Soyuz would have docked during the station's 160th orbit. The station was crippled between its 177th and 190th orbits, while out of the communication zone. Popovich and Artyukhin would have been on the station, and quite possibly asleep. It is evident that the station lost its integrity so rapidly that it is doubtful they would have been able to escape to the Soyuz (presuming that this was undamaged) and undock as the station broke up!

Another irony is that even although the Soviets referred to the first Almaz station as Salyut 2 and gave the impression that it was to continue the scientific work of its predecessor, Western analysts soon found that the OPS transmitted at 19.944 MHz, which was a frequency commonly used by Soviet military reconnaissance satellites. Because the name Almaz was a secret, the OPS stations became known in the West as 'military Salyuts' - which is precisely what the Kremlin had hoped to avoid!

Almaz Stations Ops
Left: Almaz-1 with a large solar panel on each side of the passive docking cone at the rear. On the right, Almaz-1 is mated with its Proton launch vehicle. Notice the sign Salyut 2 on upper stage's support ring.

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