On June 28, 1978, the Soviet government officially canceled the development of the manned orbital stations at Chelomei's TsKBM design bureau. (146) The Almaz was downgraded to a heavy radar-carrying reconaissance satellite, which could be visited by servicing crews. A total three already manufactured Almaz station hulls were to be converted into unmanned Almaz-T satellites. The spacecraft was to be equipped with the Mech-K ("Sword") EKOR-A side-looking radar developed at the NPO Vega-M design bureau in Moscow. (151)
The first unmanned Almaz-T had been prepared for launch in 1981, however, the program again fell victim to its own complexity, as well as to politics inside the Soviet military industry.
Opponents of the program argued that the careful analysis revealed high cost and excessive complexity in the Almaz spacecraft, which essentially prevented simultaneuous deployment of two satellites in orbit. As a result uninterrupted monitoring of the Earth surface became impossible. Concurrently, the TsKB design bureau, a developer of optical reconnaissance satellites, was pushing the idea of using its satellite bus as a base for relatively unexpensive radar-carrying spacecraft. The project was apporved in August 1982. (76)
In the meantime, Ustinov made sure the Almaz-T spacecraft wouldn't go anywhere. A decree issued by the Party and the Soviet of Ministers on December 19, 1981, officially shut down the program.
NPO Mash mothballed the existing hardware for three Almaz-T spacecraft in hope of better days. These would not arrive until Ustinov's death on December 20, 1984. In a strange coincidence, Vladimir Chelomei also died only few days before Ustinov. By that time, at least one spacecraft had already spent several years at the MIK-92-2 processing building in Tyuratam.
In 1985, Gerbert Efremov, who succeeded Chelomei as a head of NPO Mash, successfully lobbied for the resumption of the Almaz-T program. On April 12, 1986, the Military Industrial Commission, VPK, jump-started the Almaz-T project. (134)
The first attempt to launch the automated Almaz-T spacecraft was delayed by about six months due to work to remove the docking system from the station. At the time, program managers were still waiting for an official decision on the type of crew vehicles -- Soyuz or TKS -- which would be used to service the Almaz-T.
The first Almaz-T lifted off from the "right" launch pad in Area 200 in Baikonur on October 29, 1986, however it did not reach orbit due to failure of the first and second stages of the Proton launcher to separate. The safety system then destroyed the vehicle.
By the beginning of 1987, a decision had been made not to install any docking equipment for manned spacecraft onboard the Almaz-T spacecraft and to build follow-on Almaz-Ts as fully unmanned satellites. On July 25, 1987, the second Almaz-T spacecraft successfully reached orbit with an inclination 71.92 degrees toward the Equator and it was officially identified as Kosmos-1870.
The spacecraft functioned for two years, providing radar imagery with the resolution as high as 25 meters, until it was deorbited on July 30, 1989. (150)
The third Almaz-T spacecraft was launched on March 31, 1991, under name Almaz-1. After the launch, ground control discovered a failure of the communications antenna designed to downlink the imagery via Luch relay satellite. In addition, one of the solar panels failed to deploy completely, leaving the main radar panel of the spacecraft partially blocked. Nevertheless, miraculously, the radar did manage to provide data as usual, the project participants said. (149)
After 18 months of successful work the Almaz-1 was deorbited on October 17, 1992, over the Pacific Ocean.
The launch of the follow-on spacecraft, equipped with more advanced payloads, was planned for the mid-1990s. A new radar installed onboard the Almaz promised to provide a resolution between 5 and 7 meters. In addition, an optical-electronic payload on the station would be capable of producing imagery with a resolution 2.5 - 4 meters. (134)
However after the desintegration of the USSR, government funding for the project all but dried out. All attempts by the management at NPO Mash to raise private funds for the program and even to appeal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) turned out to be fruitless. (149) As a result, NPO Mash had to abandon the Almaz program. The organization hoped to use the experience accumulated in the course of the project for the development of a light-weight radar-carrying satellite for the Russian military and for potential commercial users, if such could be found.
Read more about this and many other space developments in Russia
A Proton rocket with an unmanned version of the Almaz space station, which was announced as Kosmos-1870 after its launch on July 25, 1987, from Site 200
The Almaz-T2 (Cosmos-1870) spacecraft blasts off from the "right" pad in Area 200 in Baikonur at 14:00 local time on July 25, 1987. Credit: NPO Mash
The Almaz-1 spacecraft during pre-launch procecessing. Credit: NPO Mash
The Almaz-1 spacecraft blasts off from the "right" pad in Area 200 in Baikonur at 20:12 local time on March 31, 1991. Credit: NPO Mash
The Almaz-T spacecraft. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak
The tail section of the Almaz-T spacecraft. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak
The payload section of the Almaz-T spacecraft. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak