Short mission of Almaz-1

The processing of the first Almaz space station, designated OPS-1 had been completed at the Khrunichev plant by the beginning of 1973, or almost two years after the first Salyut space station, developed at TsKBEM, had been launched.

The OPS-1 made it to Baikonur in the midst of harsh winter in January 1973 and during the next 90 days military testers and civilian specialists prepared the station for launch. Mikhail Grigoriev, deputy commander of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces, led the State Commission overseeing the launch. (100)

The OPS-1 lifted off into orbit on April 3, 1973. Since the authorities did not want to disclose the existence of two space station projects in the USSR, and particularly, to reveal the development of the military Almaz, the OPS-1 was announced as Salyut-2 upon reaching the orbit.

A crew, including the commander Pavel Popovich and flight engineer Yuri Artukhin, prepared to fly to OPS-1 onboard a Soyuz spacecraft, which was originally scheduled for launch 10 days after the station had reached orbit. However, days before the station was ready to go, technical problems with the Soyuz spacecraft forced the postponement of the manned mission. At the time, the processing pesonnel in Baikonur had already completed irreversable operations with the OPS-1 and its rocket booster and the program officials made the decision to proceed with the launch.

The station successfully reached its orbit, but 13 days after the launch, ground control detected a loss of pressure onboard OPS-1. The official investigation concluded that as a result of a faulty welding, one of the lines in the station's propulsion system had burst during the engine firing and the plume of the engine burned through its pressurized hull.

However, future findings were to essentially disprove this theory. A careful analysis of fragments detected in orbit, showed that three days after the launch of the OPS-1, the upper stage of the Proton rocket, which had delivered the station into orbit, apparently exploded, as a result of pressure changes in its tanks caused by overheating. The stage carried about one ton of unspent propellant onboard and the explosion created a cloud of debris flying in the proximity of the station. The speed of some debris differed from that of the OPS-1 by as much as 300 meters per second. Eight days later, a piece of this orbital junkyard apparently hit the station. (41)

Soon after the accident, official Soviet sources announced that the Salyut-2 had completed its operations "after a series of tests." For years, official Soviet sources continued to claim that "during entire flight (of Salyut-2) reliable radio-contact with the station had been maintained ... and all onboard systems and science equipment of the station had functioned normally." (152) However, a source published in 1985, disclosed that the station was never manned "due to deviation in the work of the attitude control system." (2)

However, despite all this secrecy and "name game," western observers not only saw plenty of evidence of a failed mission, but almost instantly managed to discern the military nature of the new spacecraft. Unlike its civilian counterparts -- Salyut-1 and Cosmos-557 -- Salyut-2 transmitted signals at 19.944 MHz, the frequency common for Soviet reconnaissance satellites. (34) With their real name secret, the Almaz stations had become known in the West as "military Salyuts."


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Artist rendering of the OPS-1 station in orbit. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak