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Polyus Combat Sat
Polyus Combat Sat - Cutaway of the Polyus 1 space weapons platform.

Credit: © Mark Wade. 24,576 bytes. 288 x 432 pixels.

by James Oberg
Originally published in:
SPACEFLIGHT (British Interplanetary Society monthly)
Vol. 37, August 1995, pp. 254-5

From the Publisher: In the five years between James Oberg's two visits to the Baikonur Museum, major changes have occurred. Now actively engaged in sifting through new information about the Soviet Space Program that has become available with the ending of the Cold War and searching out more, he writes exclusively for Spaceflight on the current progress of his research based on a lecture presentation to the British Interplanetary Society at its Symposiun on 'Soviet/CIS Astronautics' on 3 June 1995.

The Bayknor museum director hugged me in gratitude for making these changes possible. In 1990, there had been only a small, unlabelled glass-covered case in a poorly-lit back corner, holding a charred notebook and a few books about Nedelin. In 1995, there were two full-size wall-mounted cases in the main entrance hall, with the same charred notebook, but also with explicit labels about the 1960 accident, with photographs of the missile which exploded, with fragments of the missile, and with a plaque listing the "Testers of Baikonur" who perished. That list is similar to the one that I saw in 1990 on the obelisk in the memorial park in Leninsk, but it is not identical. There are several spelling errors and Nedelin's name is on the museum's list.

It was explained to me that these names are only of those victims who were from the Baikonur contingent, and that the ICBM engineers and technicians on temporary duty from the Yangel Bureau in Dnepropetrovsk are not listed. More than fifty names are given on the Baikonur list, but the best estimates of the total death toll now center around 165 fatalities.

Lt. Col. Nechyosa, the cosmodrome historian, told me that it was the publication of my articles on the "Nedelin Catastrophe" (mainly the one in Air & Space in December 1990, which was later translated for the Russian newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno) that allowed him to persuade his commanders to authorize a full, accurate account of the 1960 disaster in the official museum. Progress is now slow but steady. He is still working on an exhibit detailing the N1 moon rocket.

Such activities by in-country Russian historians "close the loop" in our persistent historical pursuits, where our private efforts have prompted the Russians to go even farther and deeper than we ever could from afar. It is a marvellous, deeply rewarding development. And it turns out that they knew of our work for decades. It encouraged them that serious researchers wanted the real story, and thus many of them secretly stashed historical materials in safe storage, awaiting the day when it could all come out and be shared. That day has come.

The last few months have seen more major new releases of Soviet space history data. Most impressive were the photographs in the Energiya Bureau's booklet, "From the First Sputnik to the Energiya-Buran and Mir". The historical insights -- and new questions -- were recently detailed in my letter published in the May issue of 'Spaceflight'. Stunning pictures of the N1, of the Zenit military spy satellites, and of other vehicles offered completely new insights into those projects.

The flood of anecdotal and personal experience has also continued, and I want to take this opportunity to share many of the tidbits with my associates. They may in turn be able to place the clues into hitherto-unperceived patterns with seemingly-unrelated other clues. It has always been so in this long-term, but satisfyingly successful, sleuthing activity.

At the Energiya Museum in Kaliningrad, which I visited last March, I enjoyed seeing my book Red Star in Orbit on display along with Nick Johnson's reports and other Western items. But I also enjoyed seeing and, for the first time, understanding some open questions, such as the bizarre seating arrangement inside Voskhod and Voskhod-2, and the landing retrorocket mounted on the Voskhod shroud lines, and the Voskhod nose- mounted deorbit propulsion package. (The tour guide insisted it was the only deorbit rocket on Voskhod, and that there was nothing else in the aft service module). Until my visit and my view of the new Energiya book, I had been unaware of the boom-mounted solar-panel 'fan' on the nose of Vostok-l .

Behind the Vostok-l, in a draped corner, I spotted the "mystery white sphere", a 150 cm half- charred object which I had never seen the like of before. The tour guide said it was called "Zenit' (but not the same as the photo-reconnaissance vehicle), that it was orbited just once, in 1967, and that it was a communications relay test payload. Hmmm, that just does not add up. I was able to get some brief time alone with it, removed the top cover, and got a few "in the blind" photos of the interior. Also, I inspected the surface and found it to be metal, not ablative. So far, in discussions with associates, I have ruled out Vostok, Zenit, Mars/Venera small lander, Mars/Venera large lander aeroshell, FOBS/Express, and Luna return capsule, but I am still wondering if it might have been a Vertikal component. I would appreciate any suggestions.

In another hall of the museum spotted an unlabelled model of what looked like a two-stage Proton with launch escape system, out of place since it was made by the Khrunichev group, not by Energiya. This might well be the manned TKS system for resupplying the Almaz military space stations, but even if so, what is it doing in the Energiya Museum? The guide did not know.

The validity of detecting spacecraft anomalies from museum exhibits has long been known, and the best earlier example I can think of is the one from 1989 when I spotted (and photographed) a Salyut-5 stylized drawing on a plaque in the Star City museum. As the photographs I took show, the artist's concept is strikingly similar to the later-released drawings of Salyut-3 and Salyut-5. It is interesting to point out that the Salyut-5 plaque in question is no longer on display in Star City.

Here is another story. During a luncheon which I arranged last October to allow retired US spacecraft designer Max Faget to meet Vladimir Titov and Gennadiy Strekalov, the cosmonauts whose lives were saved by the Soyuz launch escape tower in 1983 (a system that Faget invented for Mercury, and which the Russians subsequently copied), the space veterans swapped stories about launch escape towers. Strekalov related an unfamiliar tale of an unmanned test launch of a manned spacecraft - Soyuz or Zond, it was not clear - in which a long pad delay was caused by some systems problem. After about forty minutes, without any warning, the launch tower suddenly fired and pulled the capsule into the sky. It turned out that the escape system is triggered automatically by sensing a course deviation of ten degrees. The autopilot reached that limit due to the Earth's rotation, then decided the spacecraft was falling over, and therefore commanded the abort. I would like to figure out what launch attempt he was talking about.

An illustration of how supportive the Russians can be to Western history researchers is the mystery train track of pre-World-War-I Tyura-Tam. German military intelligence maps dated 1939 show a track laid northwards from the Tyura-Tam station. I distributed copies to our hosts at Baikonur and they were fascinated by it, later making their own inquiries in their own time. They all agreed it was an excellent map - even a lone hill plainly marked on the old map is still there and the main road and railroad actually have to be diverted around it. By the second day of my visit they were able to point out the remains of the old train bed as it diverged from the main Leninsk-Baikonur road at the far north end near the cosmodrome, and they explained that they had found out it had been built by a British mining firm in the 1930s, which had been looking for iron ore. I am still not fully satisfied with that account, since the 1930s was the time when the entire region was covered with gulag slave labor camps, and this could have been one, as well. Also, all former official histories of the cosmodrome state that the work was started 'from scratch' in 1955 and, now we know that is not true, we can expect to find out more from local historians who have become excited by the old maps. I left lots of copies.

As we push into the last dark corners of Soviet "space secrets", the dwindling list of unknowns needs constant revision so we can focus efforts and direct specific investigations. Old lists get satisfied item-by-item, and become obsolete. Here is the way my current list goes:

This Energiya-l payload has a lot of mystery surrounding it, especially its connection with the Soviet space-based laser/beam weapon program. Some partial cover stories have come out in recent years, but I remain unsatisfied with the degree of openness on this hundred-ton object. Also: what was the intended orbital inclination, 52 or 65 degrees?

Kosmos-382, the Proton-launched man-related payload in 1970
Since the Kosmos-379 series is now well understood, what is holding up full disclosure on this vehicle and on its possible related launch failure in November 1969? And along those lines, let us not forget Proton-4: why was it launched in late 1968 to check out the Earth orbital three-stage version of a booster that was not known to have any other mission. (Salyut was not approved until early 1969)? Why indeed?

Salyut-2/Kosmos-557 simultaneous manning in April-May 1973
Yes, I know the Russians say that a single manned flight required the total dedication of their entire civilian and military communications networks, but why launch two different types of manned space stations within a few weeks of each other? Was it another super-stunt that backfired?

Chelomey's manned lunar spacecraft of the early 1960s
What was its configuration, the mission profile, and details of any flight tests planned or attempted? Sergey Khrushchev's memoirs are wordy and interesting for their own reasons, but so far are unhelpful for these details.

How close did anyone ever come to stowing away aboard a Progress, or an add-on module?
Stories abound of workers at Baikonur attempting to rig equipment and sneak into the cargo hold for a launch into orbit. Did anyone ever get out to the pad?

Chelomey's "killer-satellite" and its relation to Polyot (1963-4)
I make a note to get pictures, memoirs, details on tests of ground-based anti-satellite systems, from ABM missiles to high energy weapons.

The Znamya space mirror
I also make a note to get good photos of the deployment, follow-on plans. Also, other plans for deploying innovative payloads such as the Rapunzel space tether.

The early payloads of the Zenit booster (the so-called "hulks) in the late 1980s
What were they really, why was one sent into a sun-synchronous retrograde orbit with no follow-on? And what was that debris that wound up flung into a higher orbit at insertion and which, on the first launch, were the only objects to reach orbit (the Soviet failure to register them with the UN was their most egregious violation of the Convention on Registration of Outer Space Objects)

Jettisoned old spacesuit on an early Mir EVA
There is a wonderful story with cosmonauts saluting the "fallen comrade" as "he" drifts away. When did this happen, and are there pictures?

Other questions
Were there any unknown orbital launch attempts from secondary programs, military or otherwise? Were there manned suborbital missions from Kapustin Yar in the 1958-1960 period. (I would bet against it, but the book is not entirely closed)? Did the Soviet military recover any lost Discoverer capsules? What other US-origin space debris have they found, studied, and preserved? Did they ever have to go outside their own country - say, into Iran or China - to retrieve errant space objects? And what about that reported late-1960s Soyuz-class vehicle on display in the People's Army Museum in Beijing?

What are their best, favorite photographs of Baikonur Cosmodrome from orbit?

Where are sample photographs from the Salyut-3/5 military reconnaissance cameras?

In conclusion, while this wealth of information continues to flow and be assessed, I want to suggest that a sense of urgency be maintained. This is no time to relax, to coast. This new window of opportunity still remains open, and we have valuable new allies within Russia, but there is no guarantee that new changes do not await us that will undo much of what has been gained. As years pass, memories fade and eyewitnesses die, and hardware and documents degrade or are lost entirely. As historical material assumes commercial value, we have seen prices soar. As space hardware becomes a subject for international trade, we have seen honesty fade away. As political winds shift, access to other archives has weakened. Our task remains important, our work mains difficult but rewarding.

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Last update 12 March 2001.
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