Salyut 7 – The forgotten rescue of a dead space station

In 1985 one of the most audacious space
rescue missions was launched by theSoviets to recover a space station that
had been dead for months due to anunknown fault. That feat was unparalleled
in space exploration and rewrote thebooks on what was thought possible and
yet its story has fallen into obscurityand conspiracy theory. In 1979 the Soviet
Union was a superpower in search of aspace station, Mir the state-of-the-art
orbital facility was in development butwas delayed and still six years from
launch and also the military spacestation ALMAZ had also recently been
cancelled without his final missiontaking place. To maintain a presence in
low-earth orbit the Soviet space agencytook the decision to fly one more single
long station that’s a small spacestation that can be lifted into orbit
complete in one launch. The backuphardware for the Salyut program could be
used and a series of missions wasplanned for the station will become
known as Salyut 7. This small lab orbitingbetween 200 kilometers or 120 miles
above the earth would go further thanany spacecraft before to become the base for six long-term expeditions but Salyut 7would also suffer from a series
of strange malfunctions and become thescene of a desperate rescue at orbital
velocity. The space race of the 60s and70s was measured by a growing number of competitive record breaking missions inthe Soviet media new achievements were
needed to justify the expense of spaceprograms and bolster national pride. To
feed this hunger cosmonauts spent longerand longer in their capsules on
spacewalks and then inhabited mannedspace stations. The American Skylab
constructed from an adaptive Saturn Vupper stage spent 84 days in orbit in
1973-74 testing the effects ofmicrogravity on the body and pioneering
solar observations. In 1978 the SovietSalyut 6 exceeded the long standing
Skylab record when its crew passed 96days in orbit by 1980 that record had
been extended to 184 days ofuninterrupted habitation with the
upcoming Mir the Soviets plan to do moreever been possible with single launch
stations. Salyut 7 could help makethis a reality by testing out new
hardware and training cosmonauts as wellas predecessors, Salyut 7 had the docking ports fore and aftso crew rotation and resupply could
happen simultaneously. Salyut had previously been supplied by
the progress spacecraft a derivative ofsoyuz that still travels to the
international space station to this day. Salyut 7 launched aboard a proton rocket
on the 19th of April 1982 and on May the13th the first crew launch to rendezvous
with it beginning a mission that wouldlast for a record-breaking 211 days. The
first task aboard the new station was tolaunch a 28 kilogram of 61 pound amateur radio satellite from the trash airlock. This was held by the Soviets as the
first launch of a communicationssatellite from a manned space vehicle
before NASA’s planned launch was twoheavy geostationary satellites from the
shuttle later that year. Despite asuccessful first year, research on Salyut
7 were soon stalled by technical issues. In September 1983 a fuel leak was
discovered after almost a whole tankvented into space. In a series of
spacewalks cosmonauts conducted to inorbit repairs and a later repair of a
special tool delivered by groundresupply. The unprecedented scale of
these repairs was impressive but Salyut7 faced a much greater challenge ahead.
In 1984 Salyut 7’s 3rd cosmonaut crewreturned from orbit aboard Soyuz and the
space station entered autopilot modemonitored by remote control from the
Soviet ground team. On the 11th ofFebruary 1985 telemetry reported a huge
electrical surge knocking out the radiotransmission from salyut, when ground
operators attempted to bring thetransmitters back on line a second surge
swept through the station knocking outradio receivers as well
now suddenly Salyut 7 was out ofcontact with no way of diagnosing what
may have gone wrong. For months in 1985the 16 meter or 50 foot long station
driftedsilent and out of control. According to a
Russian documentary program made in 2012the Americans considered trying to
capture the Salyut 7 with the spaceshuttles cargo bay and bring it back to
earth. In reality Soviet ground control had
considered doing the same thing with theunfinished “Buran” shuttle but they found
it would have been impossiblealthough the Salyut couldn’t be scooped up and carried back to earth it was far toovaluable to just be abandoned.
Instead the only solution was to send upa Soyuz with a two-man crew consisting
of Vladimir Dzhanibekov and victorSavinikh to manually dock with Salyut 7
and attempt a rescue. The first problemwas how do you dock with a dead space
station that uses an automatic powereddocking system. The engineers had to come up with an entirely new set of dockingtechniques. The Soyuz was a three-man
craft but with just two crew the thirdseat and the automatic docking system
removed completely there was enough roomfor extra supplies food and water and
more fuel to the extended mission. TheSoyuz was fitted with a laser
rangefinder and a crew took night visiongoggles in case they had to dock on the
night side. With a 70 to 80 percentchance of success
the mission was given the go-ahead. On 6thJune 1985 a rescue mission launched and
orbited for two days until it caughtup with salyut 7. As the Soyuz
approached more closelyit appeared that these solar panels were
misaligned that meant that theelectrical systems have failed
completely. Using the laser rangefinderto align with the docking port the crew
matched for rotation of the craft to that ofSalyut and then approached slowly to
contact and dock. This was a majorachievement but significant danger lay
ahead neither the crew nor the groundcontrol knew what had caused the station
to go dark or what layingin wait for them inside. As the cosmonauts opened up the hatches to equalize theair pressure with the station they felt
a rush of freezing air. With Salyut’spower being offline for so long it had
been exposed to temperatures had neverbeen designed to operate in.
Critical provisions like water were allfrozen and any number of essential life
support systems might have been damaged. Ground control weren’t even sure if it
was safe for the crew to be onboard. Dressed in winter clothing the cosmonauts slowly went through the process ofopening the three hatches that stood
between them and the dark living area ofthe station. With hand-held air quality
tests they quickly checked for carbonmonoxide and other dangerous gases that could indicate a fire on board. Theproblems of the station were electrical
in nature but they couldn’t just Hotwirethe station to the Soyuz. The fault that
took down the space station could alsoblow the electrics in the Soyuz and then
they would be stranded and face almostcertain death. Although the air supply
was safe they were limited to just onecrew member at a time working the
station because with no circulationsystems working the carbon dioxide from
the crew members own breath could buildup to dangerous levels.
So one crew member stayed in the Soyuzto monitor the of one working in the
station. Water was also a problem, thecrew had eight days supply in the Soyuz
if they rationed it and tapped into theSalyut’s emergency supply it would stretch to twelve days but it could take thattime or longer to find the cause of the
problem and get the station’s systemsback on line,
if the water ran out before then theywould have to leave come what may. After carefully working through the Salyutselectrical systems the cause of the
power loss was eventually pinpointed toa single sensor on one of the batteries.
This malfunctioning sensor was designedto stop the batteries from being
overcharged. Once a day, everyday the maincomputer instructed the solar cells to
charge the batteries but the faultysensor stopped charging
almost immediately. Over time thebatteries ran flat and soon the whole
station went dead unable to communicatewith the ground or function at all. Once
the crew had replaced the battery and thefaulty sensor and further adjustments to
the out of alignment solar cells weremade, in August Salyut 7 was saved and
continued to support missions for afurther year. After the station was
returned to service Vladimir Dzhanibekovremained on the station for
110 days. MIR was launched in February1986 but even with its replacement in
orbit, Salyut 7 continued to make history. The first crew on Mir traveled in the
Soyuz to Salyut to collect and transfervaluable equipment, the only time but a
station to station crew transfer hastaken place to date. The Soviets had
intended to continue using Salyut 7 evenafter the launch of Mir. It was boosted
into a higher orbit of 475 kilometers or295 miles to delay reentry however due
to the funding cuts the future Salyutmissions, the collapse of a Soviet Union
and the non appearance of the “Buran”shuttle the station’s orbit gradually
decayed and in 1991 three years earlierthan intended the last Salyut broke up
during an uncontrolled re-entry overSouth America. It’s this determination
and experience of the engineers, groundcontrol and cosmonauts to keep Salyut 7 flying when previous stationsthat have gone before we’re allowed to
fail but has been carried over into theISS which has now been flown
continuously over 15 years by theinternational community. So thanks for
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