In 1983 President Ronald Reagan announced the development of a shield in space to protect the United States from nuclear missile attack. The Strategic Defence Initiative, soon christened Star Wars by the media, was hugely ambitious, phenomenally expensive and ultimately unworkable, but it triggered immediate alarm bells in the Kremlin. As a consequence, Chairman Yuri Andropov authorised the production of systems to match and counter the US proposals.
One particular design for an experimental orbital combat station was called Polyus (Pole), or Skif-DM, and was designed to test a variety of new technologies. The design originated with Chelomei’s bureau and was based on a TKS-derived module originally intended to serve as the first component for the proposed Mir-2 space station. Normally Soviet space projects were undertaken on a five-year basis, but it seems that Polyus was pushed forward by the leadership who wanted quick results in their quest to keep pace with the Americans.
Andropov died in February 1984 and his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, continued to support the development of new Soviet space weapons. However, Chernenko was suffering with emphysema and died the following year, so it seems probable that others such as Ministers Oleg Dmitriyevich Baklanov and Oleg Shishkin were shaping events. They had jointly approved the assembly of Polyus at the Krunichev facility on 1st July 1984 and took overall control of the project. After Chernenko’s death on 12th March 1985, his successor Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to halt the development of space weapons, but he also made it clear to the US administration that the Soviet Union would respond directly to Reagan’s Star Wars programme if it continued to gain momentum. Gorbachev believed that the pursuit of space weapons could prove destabilising.
In July 1985 it was agreed to launch a Polyus test vehicle by September 1986. With the development of the Energia booster moving ahead quite rapidly, a decision was taken to launch Polyus as part of the first test flight, although adapting the spacecraft to Energia was proving rather difficult. The Polyus vehicle was 121ft (37m) in length, it had a diameter of 13ft 4in (4.1 Om) and a mass of 176,369 lb (80,000kg). The intention was to launch the spacecraft into a 173-mile (280km) orbit with a 64° inclination. The Polyus spacecraft carried a range of experimental military technologies designed for offensive and defensive use. Prototype weapons included a cannon that used a gas exhaust system to counter recoil and a chemical laser, which probably lacked sufficient power to vaporise targets but certainly had the ability to destroy optical sensors. A passive optical system was used to aim both of these systems (which was supported by radar) and a third weapon described as a nuclear mine dispenser also appears to have required the use of counter-recoil measures. It was also planned to determine the effectiveness of releasing barium clouds to diffuse the beams of Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs) because this was considered to have good potential as a defensive measure.
Polyus would utilise secure radio data links, but another technology being tested was laser communication which avoided the possibility of eavesdropping or jamming. One other experiment involved stealth technology and the entire vehicle was covered in a matt black radar-absorbing paint. During the trials personnel on the ground, on ships and aboard aircraft would attempt to locate and track the spacecraft by visible, infrared and radar means. If it was detected, they would direct lasers towards Polyus and the beam would be reflected back to Earth by an onboard mirror. Under considerable pressure the engineers at NPO Mash completed work on the Polyus prototype and it was delivered to Baikonur on schedule during August 1986. It had been a massive effort to override the slow methods of working in the Soviet Union, compounded by the involvement of several major subcontractors who included NPO Digital Mechanics, NIIMASh, NPO Elektropribor and NPO Radiopribor. The spacecraft now underwent a lengthy series of tests and checks which were completed at the end of January 1987.
Apparently Gorbachev visited Baikonur during this period and expressed serious reservations about the project, believing it might send the wrong signals to the West about Russia’s intentions in space. Despite this the launch went ahead on 15th May 1987 and the Energia booster performed faultlessly. But there had been major difficulties adapting Polyus to Energia and engineers were forced to install boosters in Polyus’s nose. This meant that the spacecraft had to perform a 180° yaw manoeuvre after separation. Moments after Polyus detached, an inertial guidance sensor malfunctioned and the spacecraft was turned through 360° before engine ignition, causing it to crash into the South Pacific Ocean. Apparently several technicians lost their jobs as a result of this incident, and there were no attempts to build a second Polyus or to initiate work on the proposed Mir-2 space station. The existence of this project has only recently come to light and how much the CIA knew about Polyus remains unknown.