Is there anything scarier than a powered gun on Earth? Yes, a space powered weapon. It sounds unnecessary, conspiracy and extremely dangerous, but we are talking about an idea that has been evaluated, developed and executed in real life. The Soviet Union load, up to here, with the only antecedent of a country that has taken a cannon off our planet, and fired it. We are talking about the Rikhter R-23.
The story is quite peculiar and has the typical overtones of any other anecdote related to the Cold War. And although many of the details related to this initiative are still a matter of speculation, over the years some information has been released that allows us to paint a fairly realistic picture of this event.
In a time of growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially over global military power and interference, the space race fulfilled a transcendental task. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Americans and the Soviets competed openly for the conquest of space. Therefore, beyond trying to beat his rival through scientific and technological means, it was only a matter of time before one of the sides explore the weapons side of this issue.
That was how in June 1974 the Soviet Union launched the space station Salyut 3. It was part of the homonymous program, which consisted of a series of manned scientific research laboratories. However, the Salyut 3 was not for civilian purposes as publicly reported; it was a military reconnaissance station that was part of the secret program Almaz.
Therefore, in addition to equipment made up of different cameras and sensors, the Salyut 3 had the particularity of carry an integrated cannon. The reason? Supposed “self defense”.
The Soviet Union is the only country to have fired a weapon into space.
According to available information, the Rikhter R-23 was not developed for the specific purpose of being actively used in space. It is an automatic weapon created by KB Tochmash, a Moscow-based weapons design bureau headed by Alexander Nudelman. Its original implementation was in the Tupolev Tu-22a supersonic bomber that incorporated it in the tail turret.
Among the various peculiarities of this weapon it is mentioned that it was operated by gas and that it could fire about 2,000 bullets per minute, at about 2,600 revolutions per minute (rpm). However, it is not known how much the version mounted on the Salyut 3 differed from the one originally used in the military aircraft of the Soviet Union.
What has been mentioned is that, since the cannon was located in the front of the space station, it was necessary to change its altitude completely to be able to point towards a certain target. However, it was never planned to fire it with the crew inside Salyut 3, since there was great concern about the vibration that could be generated by the action of the weapon, especially if this could compromise the structure in orbit.
Therefore, when the Soviet Union did use it, the shots were fired remotely from Earth.
Space as a ‘shooting range’
Salyut 3 spent just seven months in space, receiving only the mission crew soyuz 14. The Soviet Union tried to carry more missions to this space station, but Soyuz 15 failed in its docking attempts and had to be aborted. After this situation, it was decided that no more cosmonauts would be sent.
Thus, it was also determined that the weapon would be tested in space before the station was deorbited and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Here the reports are quite imprecise: all agree that the Rikhter R-23 cannon it was actually shot on January 24, 1975just hours before decreeing the re-entry of Salyut 3. However, the conditions of the test are a matter of dispute.
Some reports claim that only one shot was fired, while it is also said that three different bursts were released. The number of bullets has also been disputed, with reports that only a few were used (around 20, supposedly) and others that the magazine was emptied. It does mention that the shooters must have fired the space station’s thrusters during the shooting, to counteract the “recoil” effect from the power of the barrel.
Was any particular lens used? Or was it shot into the void of space? Said details, as well as the results obtained, have never been declassified; not even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
A story wrapped in many secrets
The case of the Salyut 3 and its Rikhter R-23 cannon is one of the many stories thrown up by the years of the Cold War. It would not be surprising if there were similar ones involving not only the Soviet Union, but also the United States. There has even been talk that the Soviets’ next step was arm their satellites with missilesalthough it was never verified.
However, it is also noteworthy that the accusations crossed by the militarization of space have not disappeared despite the passing of the years. Last April, the Pentagon produced a report where expressed concern about the apparent increase in the number of laser weapons that China and Russia have developed to disable US satellites. Although, in this case, the accused parties would no longer have to send their weapons into space, but could fire them from Earth.