The Almaz (Russian: Алмаз - "Diamond") program was a series of military space stations (or "Orbital Piloted Station" - OPS) launched by the Soviet Union under cover of the civilian Salyut DOS-17K (Orbital space station) program after 1971.
Salyut 2 failed shortly after achieving orbit, but Salyut 3 and Salyut 5 both conducted successful manned testing. Following Salyut 5, the Soviet Ministry of Defense judged in 1978 that the time consumed by station maintenance outweighed the benefits relative to automatic reconnaissance satellites.
Almaz was promoted by Vladimir Chelomei as a response to the USAF's MOL project. Like its counterpart, the Almaz OPS would be launched with its initial crew atop Chelomei's UR-500 Proton rocket. After an extended stay of 30 to 60 days of military observation and photography the crew would return to Earth by way of a reusable VA capsule.
Unlike the American MOL design the Almaz was equipped with a docking port for subsequent crews. These crews would arrive in manned TKS, also launched by the UR-500. And just like Almaz OPS, the TKS was equipped with its own reusable VA capsule. Also unique to the Almaz complex were small capsules which could be loaded with developed film for immediate return to Earth.
Orbital Piloted Stations (OPS)
The OPS basic design features are 4.15 meters in diameter and a weight of 20 tonnes. From 1965 to 1970, 8 test models and 2 flight ready spaceframes were built.
OPS-1 (Salyut 2)
The first Almaz station (OPS-1 or Almaz 101.1), announced as Salyut 2, it was launched on April 3, 1973. For purposes of military secrecy, it was publicly designated Salyut 2 upon reaching orbit. A crew was prepared to fly to the station but an accident days after the launch left OPS-1 disabled and depressurized.
OPS-2 (Salyut 3)
OPS-2 (or Almaz 101.2), announced as Salyut 3, was launched on June 25, 1974. The crew of the Soyuz 14 spacecraft spent 15 days aboard the station in July 1974. A second expedition was launched toward OPS-2 in August 1974, but failed to reach the station. The station successfully test-fired an onboard aircraft cannon at a target satellite while the station was unmanned. Salyut-3 was deorbited in January 1975, the day after the cannon test. Aiming the cannon meant pointing the whole spacecraft. It was speculated the cannon firing significantly altered the orbit of the platform. As one commentator put it, "It wouldn't do to fire at an attacker only to discover you have deorbited yourself!" However, in reality the mass of the station was so great compared to the low recoil of the cannon, that firing the gun in no way significantly altered the attitude or inclination of the station.
OPS-3 (Salyut 5)
The next Almaz station, OPS-4, was to be the first station launched with a three panel Mech-A Synthetic Aperture Radar and a manned VA capsule, however the VA was replaced by a second TKS docking port. This station's Shchit-1 23 mm defense cannon was also to be replaced with an advanced Shchit-2 space-to-space cannon. The Shchit-2 was reported to be a two projectile system, although no photographs of it have ever been published and it is doesn't appear that this system was ever installed on the station. OPS-4 was grounded when the Almaz manned program was cancelled.
In addition to reconnaissance equipment, the Almaz was equipped with a rapid-fire cannon to prevent hostile interception or boarding by American forces. This self-lubricating cannon was most likely a derivative of the 23mm Nudelman aircraft cannon (some sources say it was a Nudelman NR-30 30 mm gun). This cannon was mounted in a stationary position to the forward belly of the station. To aim the cannon the entire station would be quickly reoriented facing the threat. This provided a low profile to the station as well as positioning the crew vehicle behind the station.
Salyut 3 conducted a successful test firing on a target satellite remotely with the station unmanned due to concerns over excessive vibration and the possibility of accidental deorbitation.
OPS-4 is said to have featured two unguided missiles instead of the aircraft cannon, but this system has not been shown publicly and may have never been fully manufactured.
Following cancellation of the program, the Almaz station was reconfigured as an unmanned heavy radar-carrying reconnaissance satellite. Three such satellites were launched, two of which functioned successfully in orbit.
Currently, the private spaceflight company Excalibur Almaz has plans to launch modernized Almaz space stations, and service them with space capsules derived from the TKS spacecraft system, in support of space tourism.
Published - July 2009
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