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"On This Day" In Engineering History

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May 15, 1987 – Polyus: The Soviet Response to Star Wars

Posted May 15, 2008 12:01 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, the Soviet Union launched the Polyus spacecraft, a military test bed which could have changed the course of the Cold War. Built largely from spare parts, the orbiting weapons platform was rushed into production after U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on March 23, 1983. Nicknamed "Star Wars", a reference to the 1977 science-fiction blockbuster by George Lucas, Reagan's SDI called for both land- and space-based weapons that could defend the United States against an attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Soviet military planners worried that space-based systems could be used as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons; however, and General Secretary Yuri Andropov authorized the design of military countermeasures.

Although the Soviet space program typically ran on five-year cycles, the Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM) rushed Polyus to the launch pad. In July 1985, MOM Minister O.D. Baklanov ordered General Designer D.A. Polukhin to finish the 100 metric ton satellite by September 1986. The Energia Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) was ready to carry payloads into space, but Soviet space shuttle Buran was still incomplete. Borrowing parts from existing spacecraft, Polukhin mated a test-stand version of the TKS manned logistics vehicle to a prototype Skif-D space platform. The central module was adapted from the Mir 2 Space Station. The General Designer also used several systems and subsystems from the untested Buran, including the interface between the Polyus and the Energia booster.

An Orbiting Weapons Platform

While Yuri Andropov and his successors, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev, denounced President Reagan's proposed militarization of outer space, Soviet designers armed the Polybus with several weapons systems. In a published article called "Unknown Polybus", Yuri Kornilov of the Salyut Design Bureau described the spacecraft's defenses against anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and beam weapons. To disable ASAT systems, the Polybus was fitted with a recoilless cannon that featured both an optical sighting system and a sighting radar. Kornilov also claimed that the Polybus could produce barium clouds for diffusing particle beams. As for offensive weapons systems, reports that the Polybus could deploy mines with a nuclear cannon remain unsubstantiated.

On May 15, 1987, the Polybus was covered in a black shroud and launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakstan. Although some historians speculate that the spacecraft's shroud was radar-absorptive, it was suitable for a funeral. Because the spacecraft's engines for orbital insertion were in its nose, the downward-facing Polybus needed to yaw 180 degrees and then roll 90 degrees before placement into working orbit. After disconnecting from its Energia booster, however, the Polybus performed a 180 degree yaw turn and then continued through to 360 degrees. When the spacecraft's engines fired, the Polybus slowed and then tumbled into the Pacific Ocean.

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyus_%28spacecraft%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energia

http://www.astronautix.com/craft/polyus.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energia

http://www.buran-energia.com/polious/polious-desc.php

http://blizzard.rwic.und.edu/~nordlie/papers/asat.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_Defense_Initiative

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