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Salyut-3 (Almaz OPS-2) space station

In 1974, the Soviet Union launched a space station publicly identified as Salyut-3. In reality, it was the second military laboratory within the Almaz project but disguised as a civilian Salyut series. After the end of the Cold War, it was revealed that Salyut-3 had carried a self-defense gun that fired in orbit.


OPS-2 (Salyut-3) space station

A two-day test mission of the Soyuz spacecraft, developed specifically for the Almaz program, preceded the launch of the OPS-2 station. The 7KT version of the Soyuz was launched without crew on May 27, 1974, and was announced as Cosmos-656. (52)

A month later, on June 25, 1974, after a night-long struggle on the launch pad with electrical problems in the interface between the station and its rocket, the OPS-2 space station, lifted off from a "left-hand" launch pad at Site 81 in Baikonur . It was announced as Salyut-3. (100) Official Soviet sources disclosed that the new station was equipped with an "electro-mechanical" attitude control system, or gyrodines; rotating solar arrays; an "improved" thermal control system, and that it featured separate areas for work and rest. (71) The first use of a water-recycling facilities, and of unmanned reentry capsules was also acknowledged. (2)

The post-Soviet sources (134) listed following payloads onboard OPS-2:

  • The Agat-1 photo-camera, with a focal length of 6,375 millimeters and a resolution better than 3 meters;
  • The OD-5 optical visor;
  • The POU panoramic device;
  • A topographical camera;
  • A star camera;
  • The Volga infrared camera with a resolution 100 meters.

Cosmonaut Pavel Popovich, who trained for the Almaz mission and later manned the station, recalled in an interview with the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine that the station carried 14 different cameras in all. (153)

The station was also equipped with a "self-defense" gun developed at a design bureau led by Nudelman. The weapon was installed in the front section of the station and in order to point it at the target crew had to change the attitude of the entire station. During ground test firing, the gun was able to split in half a metal container. At the same time, the firing caused considerable shaking of the station itself, therefore in-orbit tests of the weapon during manned operations were ruled out.

The Soyuz-14 mission

The crew of the Soyuz-14 spacecraft was composed of veteran cosmonaut Pavel Popovich and a rookie, Yuri Artukhin; it was launched toward the OPS-2 on July 3, 1974. According to the recollections of Pavel Popovich, the launch vehicle delivered the Soyuz spacecraft within only 600 meters from the station and from a distance of 100 meters the crew switched to manual control. Popovich remembers taking off his spacesuit gloves, (depressurizing his suit, as a result) in order to make it easier to control the craft.

After docking, a small air leak in the peripheral areas of the docking mechanism was detected, however mission control considered it a minor problem and permitted the crew to board the station. (153)

The crew boarded the OPS-2 on July 4, 1974 and spent 15 days onboard the station. According to official sources, the "remote-sensing equipment" (read -- surveillance cameras) was activated on July 9, followed by several days of photography of the "Earth surface." (34) Central Asia was among officially disclosed targets of the station's cameras. Western sources also say a set of targets laid out near Tyuratam was also photographed to test the capabilities of the surveillance hardware.

Several times, an onboard alarm system woke up the crew during the mission, however, it proved to be false. (153)

During the flight, the cosmonauts reportedly checked the systems onboard, adjusted the temperature inside the station, moved some ventilators and completed other housekeeping chores. They also reloaded the station's onboard cameras and placed exposed film into the KSI capsule.

The Soyuz-15 mission

The second crew, was made of commander Genadi Sarafanov and flight engineer Lev Demin, and was launched to the OPS-2 onboard the Soyuz-15 spacecraft on August 26, 1974. However during the approach to the station, problems with the rendezvous system onboard the Soyuz, forced officials to cancel the docking attempt.

The Soyuz-15 returned to Earth after a two-day flight, and was forced to land under night conditions. Typically for the period, official sources reported only that the Soyuz-15 crew "tested various rendezvous modes during its mission." (152,71)

Two decades later, the official history of RKK Energia revealed that when the Soyuz-15 reached a distance of 300-meter from the station, the Igla ("Needle") rendezvous system, failed to switch to the final-approach mode and instead started implementing a sequence, which would be normally executed at a range of three kilometers from the station. On commands from the Igla, the Soyuz fired its engines, accelerating itself in the direction of the station. The relative speed of the Soyuz-15 and OPS-2 reached 72 kilometers per hour. Due to the fact that at a 20-kilometer distance, the rendezvous system tolerated deviation of the spacecraft from its target, the Soyuz-15 zoomed by the station at a distance of 40 meters. (78)

As the crew failed to realize the problem (and to shut down the Igla), the rendezvous system attempted to re-acquire radio-contact with the target and sent the Soyuz-15 to the station two more times, again narrowly avoiding a deadly collision. (52) By the time, ground control commanded the deactivation of the Igla, the crew only had enough propellant for the descent back to Earth.

The OPS-2's pilotless mission

Due to lengthy modifications in the wake of Soyuz-15's docking problems, no further expeditions to the Salyut-3 could be staged. A small film capsule was jettisoned from the OPS-2 on September 23, 1974 and the station was deorbited on January 24, 1975, over the Pacific Ocean.

According to official Soviet sources, the seven-month flight of the Salyut-3 exceeded more han twice the originally planned flight duration. Soviet publications also disclosed that the Salyut-3 was the first space station to maintain constant orientation relative to the Earth surface. To achieve that, as many as 500,000 firings of the attitude control thrusters had been performed. (152) This fact also hinted to Western observers that the Salyut-3 had perhaps carried out a reconnaissance mission.

Years later it was revealed that shortly before deorbiting OPS-2, ground controllers commanded the "self-defense" gun onboard the station to fire. The firings were conducted in the direction opposite to the station's velocity vector, in order to shorten the "orbital life" of the cannon's shells. A total of three firings were conducted during the OPS-2 mission. (72)

insider content

Legend has it that when the Soviet government forced Chelomei to launch his Almaz space station under the name "Salyut" in order to hide the existence of the "second" space station program in the USSR, the angry chief-designer directed his staff to paint the name "Salyut-3" on the detachable part of the station. This still from film footage, shows name Salyut-3 painted on an interstage ring, which is jettisoned after the station reaches the orbit. Credit: NPO Mash

A Shit-1 (shield) "self-defense" cannon developed for the Almaz station. Credit: NPO Mash


The fully assembled version of the Shit-1 cannon was displayed at NPO Mashinostroenia demo room during a visit of the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the beginning of 2021. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

The OPS-2 (Salyut-3) space station rockets into orbit at 03:38 local time on June 25, 1974. Credit: NPO Mash

The crew of the Soyuz 14 spacecraft, Pavel Popovich, left, and Yuri Artukhin, working onboard Salyut-3. Note a slide ruler in Popovich's hands. Credit: NPO Mash

Artist rendering of the of the Almaz space station docked with the Soyuz spacecraft. Credit: NPO Mash