Space Diamond: Almaz

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Space Diamond Almaz

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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