In late 1963 the American government scrapped its military spaceplane but, as a consolation to the USAF, the politicians decided to proceed with a small manned orbital reconnaissance platform called MOL. This led to a rapid appraisal of American strategy in Moscow and an upsurge of interest in a small military space station under development by Chelomei’s OKB-52. This project was proceeding well and a full-sized mock-up of the space station had been completed by March 1964. It was broadly similar to the USAF’s MOL and would be used for optical and radar reconnaissance missions. During September 1964 the project was formalised into an outline of proposals for consideration by the Ministry of Defence, and on 12th October OKB-52 was authorised to proceed with full development. The programme was called the Orbital Piloted Station (OPS), it received the reference 11F71 and the codename Almaz (Diamond).
Securing a formal agreement to proceed with Almaz on this date was fortunate, because two days later Khrushchev was deposed and Vladimir Chelomei would rapidly fall from favour through his friendship with the former chairman. In its initial form Almaz was a 20 ton (18 tonne) spacecraft. There were a number of similarities to MOL and it would be launched into orbit carrying a three-seat re-entry capsule called Vozvrashaemiy Apparat (Return Apparatus – VA). VA would utilise a hatch cut into the capsule’s heat shield to allow easy access to the space station, rather like the system designed for the American Gemini B. To begin with VA was seen as a good idea, but the plan was finally dropped and it was felt that better use could be made of the space station by ferrying crews to and from orbit in separate vehicles, with Almaz remaining in service for at least two years. A new partly re-usable manned vehicle would be responsible for servicing Almaz space stations and this was also under development by OKB-52. But the time required for development meant that Soyuz spacecraft would initially handle this function.
The Almaz space station would have a maximum length of 47ft 9in (14.55m), a maximum diameter of 13ft 6in (4.15m) and a launch mass of 41,8001b (18,960kg). Electrical power would be generated by two large solar panels with a span of 75ft 5in (23m) and a collecting area of 560ft2 (52m2). This would produce just over 3kW. There would also be two small rocket engines to allow orbital correction manoeuvres. The most important item of equipment carried by the space station was a very large telescope using a catadioptric optical system mounted into the wall of the space station. Identified as Agat-1, this high-quality hand-built instrument had an aperture of one metre and was capable of imaging surface detail at an equivalent level to the US CORONA spy satellites. Details would be captured on 50cm square film, which is said to have provided a resolution of 100LPM, and the telescope could be made to lock onto a specific area of interest using a spotting scope. A separate optical unit called Volga was also carried for recording surface detail in infrared, although the resolution was much lower than the visible light system.
Once photographs had been taken the film could be returned to Earth using a small Information Return Capsule (KS1). This tiny vehicle had a mass of approximately 7931b (360kg) and a diameter of 2ft 9in (838mm). It was equipped with a miniature solid-fuel de-orbit motor and a heat shield that was jettisoned when the parachute was released. An inflatable airbag was deployed to reduce landing impact and a tracking device was fitted. Alternatively, the film could be processed on the space station, scanned and transmitted to a ground station via a fairly secure downlink. This was probably quite slow as the technology available at that time was relatively crude. As a reminder that Almaz was a military platform undertaking highly classified operations, the vehicle carried a defensive 23mm recoilless cannon in the forward section and the station was equipped with a self-destruct system for last resort use.
Progress with the project was slow because resources were being directed towards the lunar programme, but by 1970 a number of Almaz vehicles had been built for ground tests and two operational Almaz spacecraft were nearing completion at the OKB-52 plant at Krunichev. Chelomei was now instructed to pass the full Almaz specification to the Korolev Design Bureau to facilitate systems integration into its rival DOS project, which would fly as Salyut 1 in 1971. Chelomei’s enemies within the State system never missed an opportunity to remind him of past events and this transfer of information to OKB-1 is said to have delayed the Almaz programme by two years. Had Chelomei not occupied such an important role within the country’s military-industrial structure, it is fairly clear that Dimitry Ustinov would have swiftly removed him from his directorship of OKB-52.
But Chelomei continued to receive support from the Air Force and during 1970 a team of twenty-two cosmonauts headed by Pavel Popovich began training for Almaz operations. Further modifications were made to the Almaz design and there were plans to install side-looking radar, but these were shelved. The first Almaz space station (OPS-1) was finally launched on 3rd April 1973, although it was designated Salyut-2 to conceal the fact that there were two separate space station programmes and this was the military version. But the vehicle was damaged after the upper stage of the Proton rocket suffered a fuel tank explosion and debris punctured the wall of the space station, leading to loss of air pressure. No Soyuz missions were flown to the station and, officially, Salyut-2 completed a series of prearranged tests and was successfully de-orbited on 28th May 1973. The true details of what had taken place would remain secret for several decades.
The second Almaz launch took place at Baikonur on 24th June 1974 as Salyut-3. The first team of cosmonauts arrived at the Almaz space station (designated OPS-2) on 4th July and carried out a variety of survey operations. It is believed that this was a specific military mission and the main areas of interest were in China. In 1969 there had almost been a nuclear exchange between Russia and China following a series of border clashes over disputed territory. An uneasy stalemate followed that remained unresolved until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A second Soyuz crew lifted-off for Almaz on 26th August 1974 but their rendezvous system failed and they were forced to return, making a difficult landing in the dark. A film capsule is believed to have been automatically ejected from OSP-2 on 23rd September 1974, but no further manned missions were undertaken and Almaz was de-orbited over the Pacific on 24th January 1975.
The third and final Almaz space station (OPS-3), using the cover Salyut-5, was launched on 22nd June 1976. During its period in orbit there were three separate Soyuz missions to Almaz (OPS-3), but the second Soyuz flight failed to dock with the space station. After de-orbit this spacecraft made an unplanned night landing in the semi-frozen Tengiz Lake during a snow blizzard, which prompted a major rescue operation. Almaz OPS-3 finally re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on 8th August 1977 and was destroyed.
Almaz OPS-4 was completed and was fully prepared for the next mission. The optical system was no longer a feature of this spacecraft and had been replaced with radar and ELINT equipment. Amongst the changes was a new docking unit capable of accommodating a TKS spacecraft and a Soyuz spacecraft. It is also reported that the defensive cannon was replaced by small unguided missiles. But this Almaz mission never took place and by the start of 1978 there was little enthusiasm for further manned orbital reconnaissance operations. No money was available for such endeavours with the Buran programme eating up funds.
Designed as an alternative to Soyuz by OKB-52, the TKS spacecraft was specifically produced to support the Almaz military space station.
On 28th June 1978 the manned Almaz programme was officially closed. However, it was decided that the three existing space craft, which were in various stages of completion, would be converted into unmanned Almaz-T satellites Fitted with the Mech-K (Sword) side-looking radar developed by NPO Vega-M. The first launch was planned for 1981 but was cancelled on the grounds of cost. The three spacecraft were then placed in storage until 1985 when Chelomei’s successor Gerbert Efremov managed to have the Almaz-T programme re-started. The spacecraft were now modified by removing the unnecessary docking system and the first Almaz-T was launched from Baikonur on 29th October 1986, but the second stage of the Proton rocket failed to separate and the vehicle was destroyed
On 27th July 1987 the second Almaz-T was successfully launched into a high inclination 71.92° orbit. Identified as Cosmos-1870, it stayed in orbit until 30th July 1989. The third Almaz-T was launched on 31st March 1991 using the name Almaz-1. There were a number of technical problems but it is believed that the satellite managed to return useful data before it was de-orbited on 17th October 1992. A follow-on Almaz-2 was planned with more advanced electronics and a radar system capable of resolving detail as small as 16ft (5m). However, the Soviet Union was no longer in existence and the country was in financial chaos, so the programme was abandoned.