The USSR begins enduring space station program

Faced with the loss of the Moon Race in 1969, Soviet space strategists conceived a detour of the national human space flight effort to a less expensive but what would turn out to be a lasting effort — the development of a long-term habitat in space.

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A Soviet-era artist depiction of the docking between Salyut and Soyuz spacecraft.


Origin of the Salyut project

The first landing of Apollo astronauts on the lunar surface in July 1969, marked a watershed for both US and Soviet space programs. Although, political inertia continued dragging forward the ill-fated Soviet lunar project, the leaders of the rocket industry as well as their patrons in the Kremlin had already started looking elsewhere for future goals. Within the TsKBEM design bureau, which spearheaded practically the entire Soviet human space flight program, a group of top engineers, among them Vostok’s creators Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Chertok, "conspired" to develop a space station which could be built quickly and economically. As usual, the move was designed to preempt a similar US project – the Skylab orbital laboratory which was then scheduled for launch after the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

To score the political points, the speed of the Soviet project was paramount, but, fortunately for TsKBEM, it had a great foundation to leap from. TsKBEM’s "shortcut" space station project intended to “borrow” structural components and other elements which had already been built by a rival organization led by Vladimir Chelomei. Since the mid-1960s, Chelomei's collective had worked on a military orbital complex code-named Almaz ("diamond"). In this super-secret program, Chelomei envisioned a piloted outpost equipped with powerful optical and infrared spy cameras, radar and even a self-defense gun. The station would be oriented in space by a sophisticated system of gyroscopes fed with flight control commands from a cutting-edge digital computer. Almaz would be complemented with a three-seat crew return capsule and, later, by a 20-ton transport ship. All the components were sized for launch on Chelomei’s UR-500K (Proton) booster.

However the ambitious Almaz program fell victim to technical problems and political intrigue. Chelomei, who rose to prominence during Khrushchev's reign, lost much of his clout after Leonid Brezhnev had deposed Khrushchev in a bloodless coup of 1964. As a result, by the end of the Moon Race, empty metal shells of Chelomei’s space stations were still waiting for their state-of-the-art components. Well aware of the situation, Feoktistov proposed to outfit Chelomei's delayed space station with off-the-shelf "guts" from the flight-proven 7K-OK (Soyuz) spacecraft, including a critical propulsion unit, electronics and solar arrays.

Ironically, the “conspirators” at TsKBEM had little chance to get approval for the space station idea from their own boss, the bureau chief, Vasiliy Mishin. Mishin was staunchly determined to make the Soviet lunar expedition happen and had absolutely no appetite for any distractions, let alone barging in Chelomei’s domain of space station development. Feoktistov and Chertok discussed the idea with Mishin's deputy Konstantin Bushuev, who was generally sympathetic but warned them not to advocate the idea with Mishin.

Instead, taking a page from the old playbook of TsKBEM founder Sergei Korolev, Feoktistov decided to bypass his boss at the bureau and appeal directly to the political leadership. He had the ear of “Uncle Mitya,” as bureau managers called Dmitry Ustinov, a powerful member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee overseeing the Soviet space program. Ustinov first rose to power during Stalinism and, like many Soviet apparatchiks, probably despised Khrushchev for exposing Stalin's genocidal reign. By extension, Ustinov disliked Chelomei, the former Khrushchev's protégé within the industry.

On December 5, 1969, when Mishin happened to be on vacation, Feoktistov called Ustinov and asked for an audience. Ustinov casually told Feoktistov that he was welcome to "drop by around five." Feoktistov had little difficulty convincing Ustinov and by the end of December, Ustinov chaired an official meeting with bureau managers, this time including Mishin. At the event, Feoktistov presented a technical report from his designers which detailed the proposals for a crash space station program.

According to the proposal, TsKBEM would formulate all the technical specifications for the spacecraft, design its internal content and supply all the sub-systems, while a branch of Chelomei's bureau in Fili would provide design documentation for the structure, its assembly, experimental articles and testing. Most importantly, the manufacturing of the station's main components and its final assembly would take place at the Khrunichev factory in Fili. The fully integrated station would then have to be shipped to TsKBEM in Podlipki for final tests before a trip to the launch site. This new arrangement would outlive the Soviet Union and continue through the Russian space program until 2020s.

On the afternoon of Jan. 3, 1970, Ustinov summoned key managers for clarifying the organizational issues of the new project, which was identified as DOS-7K. The DOS stood for the Russian abbreviation of Long-term Space Station (Dolgovremennaya Orbitalnaya Stantsiya) and the 7K index denoted the Soyuz transport spacecraft, which was to be used for delivering crews. The space station itself received the index 17K. (A special modification of the Soyuz spacecraft for the purpose became known as 7K-T and the overall name DOS-7KT also apparently circulated).

The January 3 meeting was attended by Mishin, as well as the head of the Fili branch Viktor Bugaisky and the Director of Khrunichev plant Mikhail Ryzhikh, as well as the Head of State Commission overseeing the flight testing in Tyuratam Georgy Tyulin. (774, 355) The next day, Mishin visited Ryzhikh at Khrunichev to further iron out the cooperation. On Jan. 5, 1970, it was the turn of Ryzhikh and Bugaisky to pay a visit to TsKBEM in Podlipki to familiarize themselves with their new partners. On the same day, Mishin directed his deputy Konstantin Bushuev to prepare design materials for the DOS-7K complex and its Soyuz transport.

As predicted, Mishin hated the whole idea but he had no choice but squeeze yet another assignment in the already overloaded portfolio of projects led by his organization. As a small consolation to Mishin, the lunar program was not shut down outright but just postponed. The strategists at TsKBEM still believed that once they outran NASA with a space station, they would return to lunar missions with a new vigor. They even drafted a new two-launch scenario for a lunar landing to resolve the enormous mass deficit, which was the Damocles' Sword hanging over the L3 project. Mishin's notes in June 1970 also listed a reusable space tug shuttling between the Earth's and lunar orbit, (and, possibly, taking advantage of atmospheric braking), as well as plans for long-duration lunar expeditions.

At the start of the DOS project, Mishin continued focusing on the Moon, leaving the station to his deputies. On Jan. 15, 1970, Bushuev and Chertok opened a meeting of the Chief Designer Council dedicated to the DOS-7K project and the final organizational issues were ironed out on January 28. On the evening of February 2, Minister Sergei Afanasiev personally came to see Mishin in Podlipki in the company of the veteran of the program Kerim Kerimov to make sure everything was ready for the DOS-7K project. (774)

On Feb. 9, 1970, the Soviet government officially endorsed the space station program under the code name DOS-7K. Then, on Feb. 16, 1970, the Minister of General Machine-building, MOM, Sergei Afanasiev signed Order No. 57ss, detailing the responsibilities for the project across the industry. (134)

Interestingly, Vladimir Chelomei's TsKBM bureau (not to be confused with Mishin's TsKBEM) was still authorized to continue the development of Almaz, which was to be used exclusively for military goals under cover of the "civilian" DOS stations. On June 16, 1970, the Soviet government also approved the development of the large TKS transport spacecraft for the Almaz stations. As a result, the Soviet Union was now had not one but two ongoing space station programs. (355)

Long-term planning for Salyut

With the military applications taken by the Almaz project, it was left to the Soviet Academy of Sciences to formulate a set of civilian applications for the DOS project, and Mishin appeared to make a genuine effort to facilitate the task. Naturally, he contacted his old partner Boris Paton, at the Electric Welding Institute in Kiev, who led the development of the famous welding experiment aboard the Soyuz-6 spacecraft. In May 1970, Mishin also discussed an experiment called Protsion with the Head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh. In July, Mishin contacted Academician Boris Petrov, another famous figure at the roots of space science, with the possibility of equipping the station with a 15-meter parabolic antenna, probably for radio astronomy experiments.

Equipping the station with large optical telescopes with mirrors reaching one meter in diameter was also apparently under consideration.

Mishin also quickly realized the need to upgrade Salyut beyond its very limited capabilities, first of all in flight duration. At the end of January 1971, his notes indicated that Feoktistov was to work on the designs for DOS No. 5 and No. 6 stations, which had to at least match the capabilities of a "complete" Almaz station, probably referring to the OPS-4 configuration. At the same time, Mishin planned to propose the work on materials for a formal Experimental Project which would highlight the advantages of the DOS-7K project over Almaz. Finally, plans on the huge next-generation space station, known as MKBS, were also on the table. (774)


The article by Anatoly Zak; Last update: June 6, 2021

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: April 19, 2021

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Konstantin Feoktistov, one of the key architects of the Soviet manned spacecraft. Click to enlarge.


Soviet officials inspect a full-scale mockup of the DOS-7K (Salyut) space station, circa 1970. Credit: Khrunichev


A likely mockup propullsion section of the DOS-7K station under assembly. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev