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Laser space battle station Polyus

Weapons in Space

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excerpts from "Intercept 1961. The Birth of Soviet Missile Defense," 2015, pp. 7,8, 248-252

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The early Soviet missile defense programs also led to initiation in the 1970s of a major effort in space-based weapons to destroy satellites and intercept ballistic missiles.[38] It culminated in a failed attempt to orbit a prototype of a secret laser space battle station, Polyus,[39] in May 1987. (See Chapter 9.)

It is ironic that it was Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev,[40] so much adored by so many opponents of missile defense in the free world, who authorized— although somewhat reluctantly—the launch into orbit of the gigantic 80-metric-ton Polyus. The development of this battle station had predated President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). At the same time, Gorbachev lectured the world about restraining the arms race, particularly targeting the U.S. SDI.

This inconvenient, for some, historical, event remains almost never mentioned, with rare exceptions,[41] in political discourse, by media commentators, and in publications. It could not even be found in directly related specialized articles [42] where one would expect the important Polyus program to be the sine qua non. Such peculiar factual selectivity illustrates ideological polarization and politicization of missile defense in spite of its utmost importance and consequence.

Intercept 1961, Chapter 1, pp. 7 and 8

In the 1970s, the Soviet missile defense and space establishments initiated a major effort in space-based weapons. It culminated in an attempt to orbit a partially complete prototype of a laser space battle station, Polyus (Skif-DM). (Polyus means a pole, as in the north pole.) The gigantic Polyus measured 120 ft (37 m) in length and 13 ft (4 m) in diameter with a mass, including its pro-pulsion system, of about 80 t.[89]

The government had embarked on a new program that eventually led to Polyus in 1976 by

a special decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the USSR Council of Ministers "On Feasibility Study of Development of Weapons Operating in Space and from Space." This decree initiated in the USSR work of the type that would be supported by the American president [Reagan] only seven years later. This development began in spite of the [limitations imposed by] the [US-USSR] missile defense [ABM] treaty, signed in Moscow on May 26, 1972. According to the treaty, its participants, includ-ing the Soviet Union, agreed "not to develop, test, and deploy sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile ground-based missile defense systems and their components." Many of those same individuals, who had prepared and signed this treaty [in 1972], only four years later prepared and arranged signing of the [new] government decree [in 1976] fully contradicting [and violating] the USSR obligations from [the earlier] 1972 [treaty].[90]

The first flight test of the largest Soviet space launcher Energia took place on 15 May 1987. Instead of the originally planned dummy payload, the launcher carried a prototype of the laser space battle station into orbit (Fig. 9.12). The Energia booster performed nominally and Polyus separated from it. The latter then fired its own propulsion system to provide the final velocity increment of 200 ft/s (60 m/s) to reach the desired low-Earth orbit. The latter maneuver required burning 1.5-2.0 t of the propellant.

Polyus separated from Energia with its thrusters pointing in the direction of the velocity vector. The space vehicle thus first had to turn and change its pitch angle by 180 deg and the roll angle by 90 deg, and then start its engines for the final push into orbit. After the required turn of Polyus, its engines began firing but the vehicle rotation did not stop, as planned, at that time and continued.[91] Consequently, Polyus failed to reach orbit because of the error during the maneuver. The next—and it would become the last—launch of the Energia booster successfully deployed a Soviet space shuttle, Buran, into orbit without a crew on 15 November 1988. After two revolutions around the Earth, Buran automatically landed at Tyuratam [Baikonur] as a plane.

Missile defense publications


Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev [92] visited the launch base at Tyuratam, the cosmodrome Baikonur, in May 1987. After some hesitation, he authorized the launch of the space battle station Polyus. Chief designer of the Energia launch vehicle, Boris I. Gubanov, [93] recalled that he had unsuccessfully urged General Secretary Gorbachev to attend the launch. A top Communist Party official, Lev N. Zaikov, [94] who accompanied Gorbachev, got irritated and explained to Gubanov,

Can't you understand? If Mikhail Sergeevich [Gorbachev] attends the launch and an accident occurs, then all the world would talk that even the General Secretary [Gorbachev] could not help. If everything is nominal [and the prototype laser space battle station Polyus successfully deployed], then they would say that the General Secretary steps up the arms race.[95]

If successful, the deployment of this gigantic space weapon system prototype could have indeed profoundly changed the dynamics of the arms race and relations between the superpowers.

Nikolai V. Mikhailov led [the leading misile defense development establishment] TsNPO Vympel and its successor organization from 1987 to 1996 and then served as Deputy Minister of Defense from 1997 to 2001. He noted the role that the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative and the Soviet effort in space weapons played in historical developments,

The name of U.S. President Reagan is linked with "the beginning of the end" of our country, the USSR. Perhaps, there is a reason for this, which has many aspects. One of them is the [U.S.] Strategic Defense Initiative and the aspiration of the Soviet political leadership to counteract it by our "asymmetric response."

From today's point of view, the efforts of then political leadership which permitted to draw itself into senseless competition with the USA look especially dubious. The [two] leading ministries of Radio Industry [responsible for missile defense] and General Machine Building [MOM, responsible for ballistic missiles and space] prepared and went through all stages of [Communist Party and government] approval for two exceptionally ambitious programs which, in essence, were not "asymmetric" but, to the contrary, just repeated in most areas main features of the American programs. Inertia of thinking then did not leave any hope for our political leaders to critically reevaluate the situation. "The process has started," as people used to say in those days. With the backdrop of empty shelves in the stores at that time, this seemed to become the weighty [last] drop that overfilled the sea of otherwise accumulated problems in the society.[96]

The Soviet development effort and attempted deployment in orbit of a prototype of the laser space battle station remains rarely mentioned in the United States, even in specialized publications. This selectivity reflects the ideologically charged partisan nature of policy debates on arms race and missile defense.

Intercept 1961, Chapter 9, pp. 248-252

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