Author thanks Igor Puchkov and Igor Postnikov at NPO Mashinostroenia, in Reutov, Russia, and Alain Chabot from Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point, Nova Scotia, Canada, for their help in preparing this section.
Origin of the Almaz project
The ascent of man into space at the height of the Cold War raised the question of the military role of piloted spacecraft. At the beginning of the 1960s, space designers in the US and the USSR considered a whole spectrum of military manned spacecraft, including orbital bombers and interceptors; however, ultimately, automated systems proved to be cheaper and more reliable means of deploying weapons in space. Still, the use of human eyes and brains seemed promising in space-based intelligence. Proponents of manned space espionage argued that the presence of people in Earth orbit, armed with powerful reconassance tools, could provide careful selection of targets and quick reaction to fast-changing developments on the battlefield.
On October 12, 1964, during a meeting of leading specialists of the OKB-52 design bureau, based in Reutov, on the eastern edge of Moscow, its chief-designer Vladimir Chelomei officially announced the beginning of development of the Orbital Piloted Station, OPS, code-named Almaz or "Diamond."
The "Diamond" became the latest "gem" in the family of weapons designed at Chelomei's bureau. Several generations of cruise missiles produced by OKB-52 had traditionally been named after precious stones. The challenges of finding sea-based targets for his cruise missiles made Chelomei look at orbital reconaissance. He was the first to propose radar-carrying guidance satellites, which would watch the fearsome NATO armadas; and the idea of a manned orbital sentry equipped with optical and electromagnetic sensors was the next logical step in the same direction. (41) The Almaz project promised to advance space-based reconnaissance beyond the capabilities of unmanned satellites. (78)
In the best traditions of the Cold War, Chelomei needed a challenge on the US side in order to justify funding for the Almaz program. Such justification was delivered to Chelomei by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who assumed power in the White House on November 22, 1963, in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination. In December 1963, only weeks after his unexpected inaguration as president, Johnson, following the advice of his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, announced the cancellation of the development of the Dyna-Soar mini-shuttle. Instead, Johnson promised to consider the development of a Manned Orbiting Laboratory, MOL, which would enable the US Air Force to explore military potential of a man in space. It took another 20 months, before Johnson reluctantly committed to implement the MOL program with an official announcement made on August 25, 1965. At the time, the first launch of a manned MOL was expected at the end of 1968.
The US Air Force advertised a "go-ahead" to the MOL project as "one of the most siginificant political decisions of the space age," which "...ranks in importance with the May 25, 1961, announcement by President Kennedy of the Apollo moon landing program." (143)
In reality, neither NASA, immersed into the race to the Moon, nor even Defense Department, uncertain about the usefulness of its "space cadets," expressed much enthusiasm about MOL. The program was eventually canceled in 1969 after a single unmanned launch, making it a footnote in popular accounts of space history. As American historian Walter McDougall put it, "Civilians overcame US Air Force pressure for manned spaceflight by "shooting down" Dyna-Soar with MOL, only to shoot down MOL later on." (144)
However, in the charged atmosphere of the mid-1960s, over-optimistic statements by the US Air Force about its role in space and impressive, but often unrealistic depictions of the MOL labs widely published in the American press, provided plenty of propaganda for Chelomei to lobby for a Soviet "response."
On October 27, 1965, only two months after President Johnson committed to build the MOL, the Ministry of General Machine Building, overseeing the Soviet space industry, approved the Almaz program. The Chief Intelligence Directorate, GRU, of the Soviet Army was to be a primary user of the system. (78)
The Almaz was designed for a three-person crew and an operational life of one or two years. Its mass and dimensions were determined by the capabilities of the Proton rocket, also developed by Chelomei's collective.
The original proposals envisioned the Almaz station carrying its own three-seat reentry capsule, known as "Vozvrashemui Apparat" ("return apparatus" or VA), which would allow launching the station with the crew onboard. Not unlike the American MOL station, the access of the crew from the VA capsule into the lab would be accomplished via a special hatch in the heat shield at the bottom of the VA capsule.
Preliminary work on the Almaz project apparently started around 1963. One of the veterans of the TsNIIMash research institute, who accompanied its director, Yuri Mozhorin, on a tour of Chelomei's facilities in the spring of 1964, reacalled seeing a mockup of the Almaz station and its reentry capsule. (82)
To support the Almaz station, OKB-52 designers also proposed the Proton-launched Transport and Supply Ship, or TKS, which would be capable of delivering cargo and, in combination with the VA capsule, a crew of three to the station.
Since "man-rating" the VA capsule and the Proton rocket would take longer than the development of the Almaz lab itself, the first phase in the deployment of the system called for the launch of three Almaz stations without the VA capsule and the delivery of the crew onboard a modified Soyuz spacecraft. Three two-month-long expeditions were to visit each lab.
In the second half of 1972, the Cosmonaut Training Center, TsPK, formed the crews for the first phase of the Almaz program. Unlike other Soviet crews, which often included a military pilot as a commander and a civilian specialist from the industry as a flight engineer, all early Almaz crews included only military pilots.
Next page: Development of the Almaz station
Artist conception of the US Manned Orbiting Lab, carrying an inflatable radar antenna. Credit: Gordon Phillips / US Air Force
This artist rendering shows three Manned Orbiting Laboratories, MOLs, of the US Air Force docked in orbit, while a fourth lab speeds up for a rendezvous. Such artwork, widely published in the midst of the arms race of the 1960s, helped justify the Soviet Almaz project. Credit: US Air Force
The Soviet "overwhelming" response to MOL -- an artist rendering of the Almaz space station in "full" configuration docked with two TKS spacecraft. Credit: NPO Mash