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A Russian “documentary” produced by Roscosmos claimed Americans plotted to seize Salyut-7 in 1985.

Kidnapping a Soviet space station

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On March 10, 1985, the Space Shuttle Challenger was poised for launch at the Kennedy Space Center on an audacious mission: rendezvous with the unmanned Soviet Salyut-7 space station, capture it, stow it away in its cavernous payload bay, and bring it back to Earth. Launched in 1982, Salyut-7 had been ready to host another long-duration expedition in March 1985 until Mission Control outside Moscow suddenly lost contact with the station on February 11.

Does this all sound too crazy to be true? Not to the makers of a Russian television documentary called “The Battle for Salyut: A Space Detective”.

US space tracking assets had immediately noticed that Salyut was tumbling out of control and, within hours, the Pentagon had come up with a plan too tempting to resist. Challenger was undergoing final preparations for a routine mission to deploy two communications satellites. Why not launch it with an empty cargo bay instead, send it to Salyut-7, and snatch the station from orbit, allowing the US to steal sensitive military secrets from the Russians? Just hours after control over Salyut-7 had been lost, National Security Agency director Lincoln Faurer called President Ronald Reagan in the middle of the night to brief him about the plan. After some hesitation, the President granted his permission.

The following day US newspapers splashed the news of the loss of control over Salyut-7 across their front pages, warning the public that if the station made an uncontrolled re-entry, it could shower debris over populated areas, very much like Skylab had nearly done in 1979. The plan to capture Salyut-7 with the Shuttle remained top secret, but once it came to light during the Shuttle mission, the US public would have been sufficiently brainwashed by the media to believe the cover story : NASA had simply been obliged to pluck the station from orbit to prevent it from hurting anyone on the ground.

In reality, the mission fit perfectly within Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as “Star Wars”), which was not only intended to create a shield against incoming Soviet missiles, but also to destroy and capture Soviet satellites. Anticipating a scenario like the one that unfolded in early 1985, NASA had already performed a dress-rehearsal mission in October 1984. The Shuttle Challenger had been launched into Salyut-7’s orbit and retrieved a small US spy satellite as the first step in a secret program to retrieve “uncooperative” objects from orbit.

How would the Russians respond to such a provocative act as capturing a space station? Relations between the two superpowers were at an all-time low after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe, and Reagan’s initiative to launch the SDI program. The man in charge at the Kremlin at the time was 73-year old Konstantin Chernenko. A protégé of former leader Leonid Brezhnev, Chernenko had been appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party in February 1984 following the death of Yuri Andropov, who had been in office for only 15 months after the death of Brezhnev. Even at Andropov’s funeral, it had become obvious that Chernenko himself would be no more than a transition figure. Standing on the Lenin mausoleum in bitter cold, he had struggled to read his predecessor’s eulogy. By early 1985 Chernenko’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he was barely able to run the country and the US knew it. With no strong hand at the helm in Moscow, the chances of the Soviet Union responding to the capture of Salyut-7 with a nuclear strike looked slim. It was a gamble America was willing to take.

With little time to prepare for the mission, NASA went on the lookout for a crewmember who had hands-on experience with Salyut-7. The choice was soon made: in 1980 two French spationauts, Jean-Loup Chrétien and Patrick Baudry, had begun training in the Soviet Union for a short-duration visiting flight to Salyut-7. Chrétien had gone on to fly the mission in June 1982, but for the Salyut-7 capture mission the two men would switch roles, with Baudry flying as payload specialist and Chrétien backing him up.

The assignment of the French astronauts raised suspicion about the true purpose of the Challenger flight in the Soviet military intelligence service, which duly informed Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov of its concerns on February 24. Shortly afterwards, a meeting of government and space program officials decided to launch a rescue mission to Salyut-7 as soon as possible, before the Americans could lay their hands on the station.

The Soviet Union was working on its equivalent of the shuttle, Buran, but the vehicle was at least several years away from its maiden flight and could not be readied in time to save Salyut-7. So the decision was made to fly a rescue mission on a Soyuz spacecraft and entrust the job to two experienced cosmonauts: Vladimir Dzhanibekov, a veteran of four short-duration missions to Salyut-6 and Salyut-7, and Viktor Savinykh, who had accumulated 75 days of spaceflight experience aboard Salyut-6 in 1981 and had been slated to fly to Salyut-7 in March as part of the next long-stay crew.

It did spark some indignation at the time on Russia’s most authoritative online space forum, but so far seems to have gone completely unnoticed in the West.

However, there was no way the rescue mission could be readied before NASA made its first attempt to launch Challenger to Salyut-7. On March 10, the mission was ready to go. But then, with just hours to go in the countdown, news arrived from Moscow that the ailing Chernenko had passed away earlier that day. The news wasn’t unexpected, but couldn’t have come at a worse time. In the power vacuum left by Chernenko’s death, the Soviet response to the Salyut-7 capture became unpredictable and the Americans considered it prudent to call off the mission. Officially, the launch was scrubbed for technical reasons.

Still, hopes of capturing the Soviet space station were not abandoned. Challenger was loaded with a Spacelab module and launched with a different crew on April 29, 1985, to make a close rendezvous with the unmanned Salyut-7, allowing the crew to make a close-up photographic inspection of the station ahead of the capture mission, now rescheduled for a Discovery mission in June. Moreover, returning from orbit with the Spacelab module in the cargo bay was a good simulation of returning a heavy object to Earth.

In the end, the Russians beat the US to the launch pad. After finishing preparations for their rescue mission, cosmonauts Dzhanibekov and Savinykh were launched on June 6 aboard Soyuz T-13 and, using newly developed laser range-finding techniques, managed to dock their vehicle with the crippled Salyut-7 two days later.

But even that didn’t stop NASA from continuing preparations for launching Discovery to Salyut-7. The Americans were convinced that the Soviet rescue effort would fail. Expecting that at least one of the cosmonauts would die, they even left one seat aboard Discovery vacant to rescue the surviving cosmonaut. Now NASA would kill two birds with one stone: seize the precious space station and at the same time show its goodwill by saving a Soviet cosmonaut from certain death.

However, in the following days the Russians demonstrated some of the “can-do” spirit that NASA itself had been praised forever since the miraculous rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970. Braving freezing temperatures and mounting carbon dioxide levels, Dzhanibekov and Savinykh managed to restore power to Salyut-7 and gradually resuscitate the space station. After they were shown on Soviet TV talking about their flight, it was clear to the Americans that the rescue mission was no longer needed. Instead, the Discovery mission was launched on June 17 to deploy four Mexican communications satellites. A crisis that had brought the world on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe was finally over…

Does this all sound too crazy to be true? Not to the makers of a Russian television documentary called “The Battle for Salyut: A Space Detective”, who present this Hollywood-like scenario as plain fact. Perhaps nothing to pay too much attention to, were it not that the film was produced by the television studio of the Russian space agency (Teleradiostudiya Roskosmosa), more or less the equivalent of NASA TV. Set up in 2005, the TV studio presents a weekly update on space developments and has also made some 25 documentaries, mainly about the Russian space program. Overall these are of decent quality, but this one is little more than a piece of fake investigative journalism.

It takes only some basic fact checking to debunk all the preposterous allegations made in the documentary.

The documentary was first aired on Russian television on November 1, 2011, and is now available on the website of the Roskosmos television studio. It did spark some indignation at the time on Russia’s most authoritative online space forum, but so far seems to have gone completely unnoticed in the West. The documentary even won an award at an international film festival in Moscow in 2012.

It takes only some basic fact checking to debunk all the preposterous allegations made in the documentary. There was indeed a Challenger mission with a French payload specialist that was called off in the late winter of 1985, but it never got as close to launch as claimed in the documentary and Challenger wasn’t even on the pad on the day that the flight was supposedly scrubbed for political reasons. Designated STS-51E, the mission was originally scheduled for launch on February 20 and intended to deploy NASA’s second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B) as well as the Canadian Anik C-1 telecommunications satellite. Baudry wasn’t assigned to the flight at the last moment, as the documentary suggests. He and Chrétien began training in Houston for a Shuttle mission in March 1984, the main objective being to continue a series of echocardiographic experiments begun by Chrétien during his Salyut-7 mission in 1982. Baudry was assigned to 51E (along with the rest of the crew) in August 1984, months before Salyut-7 ran into trouble.

Problems with the TDRS-B satellite eventually forced NASA to cancel the mission on March 1, 1985, about two weeks after Challenger had been rolled out to the pad. Challenger was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building on March 4 (six days before the purported launch scrub on March 10) and transferred to the Orbiter Processing Facility on March 7 to be outfitted with the Spacelab-3 module for STS-51B (a life sciences mission), launched on April 29.

Following the cancellation of STS-51E, NASA reassigned the crew (except for Baudry) to STS-51D (flown on Discovery in mid-April 1985 and not mentioned in the Russian documentary), and the original 51D crew (except for payload specialist David Walker) was moved to STS-51G in June. Baudry was also transferred to 51G because, at the time of the 51E cancellation, the equipment for David Walker’s drug processing experiments had already been installed in Discovery and there was no room to add Baudry’s echocardiographic equipment. The STS-51G stack was rolled out to the pad on June 4 and the payloads (communications satellites for Mexico, Arabsat, and AT&T, not “four Mexican satellites” as stated in the documentary) were installed in the cargo bay on June 5, one day prior to the launch of Soyuz T-13.

Claims that two Challenger missions (STS-41G in October 1984 and STS-51B in April-May 1985) approached Salyut-7 are equally unfounded. First, there is no way such maneuvers could have gone undetected at the time and, second, orbital mechanics simply made them impossible. Both Shuttle missions flew with orbital inclinations of 57°, much higher than Salyut’s 51.6° inclination. Two experts in orbital mechanics are shown explaining that Challenger had enough propellant on mission 51B to match its inclination with that of Salyut-7, but their assumption is based on a difference in inclination of just 1.7°, when it was actually 5.4°.

The motive given for the capture mission was that it would enable the US to steal “military secrets” from the Soviet Union. However, unlike the three military Salyuts (code-named Almaz) flown in the 1970s, Salyut-7 was primarily used for civilian purposes, with a lot of its design details openly published by the Russians. Whatever information the US might have gleaned from capturing Salyut-7 would not have justified the political risks associated with such a mission.

Leaving aside the political fallout of the mission, would it even have been technically feasible? The least one can say is that Salyut-7, which was 13.5 meters long and had a maximum diameter of 4.15 meters, would have fit inside the Shuttle’s cargo bay, whose dimensions were 4.6 by 18 meters. In fact, after the final crewed mission to Salyut-7 in 1986, the Russians significantly raised its orbit in hopes that one day it could be retrieved by Buran, which had the same dimensions as the American shuttle.

Some of the footage of the Soyuz T-13 mission and recollections about the flight by Dzhanibekov and Savinykh are definitely interesting. This daring rescue mission, the closest Russian equivalent to Apollo 13, is worth a documentary in its own right and deserved better than to be portrayed as the apotheosis of a fabricated story.

Nonetheless, it would have taken a lot of work to prepare the station for retrieval. First of all, a number of spacewalks would have been required to remove appendages, such as the huge solar arrays and various antennas from the station’s hull. Next, crews would have had to unload equipment from the station’s interior to make it light enough for the return trip to Earth. The maximum payload return capability of the Space Shuttle was about 14.5 tons (not 27 tons as claimed in the documentary), but Salyut weighed about 20 tons at launch in 1982 and three years later had become even heavier after numerous resupply missions. Among a lengthy list of other problems would have been the absence of grapple fixtures and compatible docking systems to catch and enter the station. While all this would have been challenging enough for well-prepared Russian Buran crews with full knowledge of the station’s design details, it would have been an almost impossible task for a US Shuttle crew and certainly not one that could be accomplished in a single mission.

Ironically, rather than “steal” Salyut-7, the shuttle could have come to the assistance of the Russians in rescuing the station if they had not declined a private offer by the Reagan Administration in January 1984 to carry out a joint simulated space rescue mission involving the Shuttle and Salyut-7. Possibly, Reagan had planned to announce the offer several days later in his State of the Union address, the same one in which he announced plans to build Space Station Freedom. Several months earlier, NASA had reportedly been instructed by the White House to conduct a feasibility study of such a joint mission following (false) reports in the early fall of 1983 that a Salyut-7 crew had become stranded in orbit after a failed attempt to send up a replacement crew. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the offer was repeated in early 1985 (possibly in the wake of the problems experienced by Salyut-7), but again turned down.

So what evidence is provided in the documentary to back up all these extraordinary claims? As for President Reagan’s approval of the capture mission, the narrator admits that there is no written evidence to confirm that (conveniently noting that “all the related documents are still classified”), but goes on to say that “subsequent events showed that such an order had indeed been given and it would bring the world “on the brink of World War Three”.

The only concrete document referred to is an intelligence memo that Defense Minister Sokolov supposedly received on February 24 about the assignment of the French astronauts. Whether such a memo really landed on his desk that day is questionable (after all, Baudry’s assignment to 51E had been publicly announced by NASA in August 1984), but the idea that the assignment raised some suspicions in Soviet circles about the objectives of the Challenger mission may not be so far-fetched. There had always been a high level of paranoia in the Soviet Union about the military potential of the Space Shuttle. Misconceptions about the military applications of the shuttle, such as the belief that it was capable of diving into the atmosphere to drop bombs over Moscow, had been a key factor in the Soviet decision to develop Buran in 1976. The Buran orbiter was a virtual carbon copy of its US counterpart in shape and dimensions, exactly to counter the perceived military threat of the Shuttle. Furthermore, a couple of developments in the Shuttle program in early 1985 may have fueled the Soviet paranoia. The Shuttle had flown its first dedicated Defense Department mission (STS-51C) in January 1985 and a controversial laser experiment in the framework of SDI was planned for the STS-51G mission in June.

Other than that, the filmmakers resort to the same techniques typically used in “mockumentaries,” but clearly not with the intention of creating a parody. Comments made by cosmonauts in the documentary are placed out of context to support some of the false claims. For instance, at one point Viktor Savinykh shows a rare picture of Salyut-7 presumably taken during the approach of Soyuz T-13, but his words are construed as evidence that Salyut-7 was photographed by the STS-51B crew several weeks prior to the Soyuz T-13 mission. The absurd assertion that STS-41G retrieved “a small US spy satellite” is illustrated with footage of the deployment of the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, a civilian remote sensing satellite placed into orbit by Challenger on that mission.

Fake newspaper headlines are used to prove that the loss of contact with Salyut-7 on February 11, 1985, was big news in the US the following day. In actual fact, it took a while for news of Salyut’s trouble to leak to the West. The Russians themselves gave only vague hints that something was amiss with the station and didn’t reveal details of the perils faced by Dzhanibekov and Savinykh until the publication of an article in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda in August, two months after the launch of Soyuz T-13. Although the narrator casts doubt on Baudry’s words that he wasn’t aware of the true objectives of the Soyuz T-13 mission at the time of its launch, Baudry is almost certainly telling the truth.

Some of the footage of the Soyuz T-13 mission and recollections about the flight by Dzhanibekov and Savinykh are definitely interesting. This daring rescue mission, the closest Russian equivalent to Apollo 13, is worth a documentary in its own right and deserved better than to be portrayed as the apotheosis of a fabricated story. Clearly, the main purpose of the documentary makers was to mislead an ignorant television audience into believing that the United States was willing to accept the risk of igniting a nuclear war by kidnapping a Soviet space station. One can only guess at the motives that prompted them to do so, particularly because the film was produced long before the Ukrainian crisis once again soured US-Russian relations. This is a slanderous anti-American documentary that does not belong on a website run by the Russian space agency and Roskosmos should have the decency to remove it from the web.