Written by Matthew Copes
Though more commonly known as Star Wars, America’s Strategic Defense Initiative was a proposed network of advanced ground, air, and space-based detection devices and weapons designed to track and destroy Soviet ICBMs.
The revolutionary program came to light in the spring of 1983 during a national television address by President Ronald Reagan, but by then Star Wars had been on the drawing board for years.
Much of the actual cost may have been hidden in dark budgets, but all told the program was estimated to have cost around 30 billion USD, or about 90 billion USD today.
Regardless of how much Star Wars cost and how far development progressed, at least in theory, it could have protected America and its closest allies from annihilation during a nuclear exchange.
Advocates considered the controversial program a necessary bulwark against a powerful nemesis in particularly dangerous times.
On the other hand, detractors characterized it as wasteful, foolhardy and downright impractical.
In the end, Star Wars was canceled by President Clinton in 1993.
Yet nearly two decades beforehand, the Soviets test fired a simple and effective space weapon of their own, and these days it’s all but been forgotten.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world by successfully launching Sputnik.
Over the next three weeks the revolutionary unmanned satellite orbited the earth more than 1,400 times.
A few weeks later the USSR upped the ante by sending a stray dog named Laika into orbit.
The patriotic canine perished on the mission, but in mid-April of 1961 the Soviets once again reaffirmed their technical prowess when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
These were among the century’s most noteworthy scientific and engineering achievements, and perhaps more importantly, they proved that the Soviet Union was far more advanced than many in the west had suspected.
Yet despite these successes, as the Cold War heated up the Soviets became increasingly obsessed with outdoing their arch rivals.
Huge sums of money were poured into additional development, while across the Atlantic the Americans were working on a number of top secret projects of their own, one of which was the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program.
Though cloaked in civil applications, in reality, the program was largely focused on developing equipment and training that would permit military astronauts to monitor, track, capture and even attack Soviet satellites and manned stations.
Needless to say, the Soviets saw the MOL program as a serious threat.
Not surprisingly, defensive space weapons made good sense, and in many respects, small, reliable and potent cannons were just what the Soviets needed to protect its assets from the ever-meddling Americans.
In addition, with the scheduled deployment of America’s Skylab space station in 1973, the Soviets thought it likely that their hard-earned dominance of space was destined to come to an abrupt end.
To regain the upper hand while reducing the time and expense associated with building an entirely new manned space station, the Soviets opted for a simpler design that used existing parts and technologies from the Soyuz spacecraft.
Designated Salyut-1, the new space station was hastily launched in 1971 after relatively short development and construction periods.
Salyut-2 followed in the spring of 1973, and on June 25, 1974, Salyut-3 blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan.
Alternately known as Almaz – Russian for diamond – in English ‘Salyut’ means fireworks or firecracker.
According to the Soviets, Salyut-3 was strictly a civilian space station, but western intelligence agencies weren’t so sure.
Salyut-3 remained in orbit 167 miles (270 km) above the earth for 213 days, during which time it made one complete orbit every 89 minutes.
Though unmanned at launch, the station was eventually staffed by a small crew of cosmonauts who spent much of their time attending to sensitive surveillance equipment that had been designed to scan and photograph large portions of the “earth,” or more accurately, the United States.
In other words, at least as far as the Americans were concerned, the supposedly civilian space station was really a spy satellite.
The Rikhter R-23 cannon that was ultimately attached to the underside of Salyut-3 was derived from another unique cannon that had been developed in secrecy by the KB Tochmash Design Bureau in the late ‘50s.
Along with Chief engineer Aleksandr Nudelman, team members had dozens of years of experience developing airplane cannons as well as guided and unguided anti-tank rockets.
The R-23 was a 23 mm cannon used almost exclusively in the tails of Soviet strategic bombers like the Tupelov Tu-22.
However, before the development of the R-23, autocannons had relatively low rates of fire.
In addition, they were long, heavy and difficult to balance, and projectiles were often blown off course in the turbulence behind the bombers from which they were fired, all of which made hitting fast moving targets a tedious affair.
To make new cannons more effective, they needed to be lighter and smaller than previous models while offering better defensive protection through longer ranges and higher rates of fire.
To save weight, Nudelman’s team initially reduced projectile diameter from 23 to 14.5 mm.
More than a third smaller, the new cannon was only slightly larger than a .50-caliber (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun.
With 175 gram (2,700 grain) projectiles and muzzle velocities approaching 2,800 feet per second (853 m/s), range exceeded two miles and accuracy was equally as exceptional.
During testing, an R-23 prototype was rumored to have hit a steel soup can more than a mile away using only manual sites for aiming.
In addition, the cannon’s adjustable gas operating system purportedly allowed for rates of fire between 950 and 2,000 rounds per minute, though some sources suggest that the actual rate of fire might have been twice as high.
Even at 2,000 rounds per minute, the R-23 would have been the world’s fastest firing cannon, excluding multi-barrel, rotary Gatling guns.
In part, this was made possible by a radical design that incorporated an unconventional barrel-style loading mechanism similar to the ones used on handheld revolvers.
The four-chamber revolving cylinder significantly eliminated the weight and complexity associated with multi-barrel rotary cannons, while producing an even higher rate of fire.
In all, the cannon had three distinct gas systems that ejected spent casings, loaded new rounds into the chamber, and spun the cylinder to the next position.
To reduce overall length and weight even further, Nudelman opted for telescoped ammunition.
On standard cartridges, projectiles protrude from the front of the case containing the propellant.
On telescoped ammunition however, projectiles are housed within the casing and surrounded by propellant, both of which make the rounds much shorter.
Additional benefits included ballistics similar to traditional rounds of comparable mass and caliber, and decreased likelihood of jams and damage during the loading, firing and ejection cycles.
Despite initial teething problems, the first prototype was ready for testing in 1957, but at this point the project had absolutely nothing to do with space.
Initial results were encouraging, but a number of design changes were needed before the guns would be fit for service.
To provide greater range and penetrating power, caliber was increased back to 23 mm, but even so, the new cannon was just 4 feet 10 inches (1.4 m) long and weighed less than 130 pounds (59 kg) – about 40% less than traditional cannons of the same size.
R-23s entered service with the strategic bomber fleet in the summer of 1964, but it wouldn’t be until a decade later when one heavily modified example was sent into space on Salyut-3.
It’s a common misconception that propellants can’t ignite or burn in oxygen-free environments like space.
Though that may have been true centuries ago, modern propellants contain oxidizers that are capable of triggering ignition even in the absence of oxygen.
On the downside however, firing kinetic energy weapons in space had never been tried before, and it presented a number of unique problems.
First, while earthbound cannons are usually aimed and fired directly, the Soviet’s R-23 would have to be fired remotely – from earth.
To make matters more complicated, the R-23 was mounted in a fixed position outside of the space station suspended from its belly.
This meant that to aim it, the entire 20-ton station would have to be pointed toward the target.
This would have been similar to aiming the main gun on a turretless tank destroyer, but instead of using steel tracks and clumsy hydrostatic clutches to ensure proper alignment, ground controllers would have to rely on temperamental thrusters.
Needless to say, aiming would have been extremely tedious and probably downright ineffective, and it’s likely that future cannons would have been housed in fully-traversable, manned or remotely-operated turrets.
In addition, scientists weren’t sure how the gun’s recoil would affect the station’s structural integrity.
To minimize risk, the firing took place just hours before the space station was slated to de-orbit and reenter the earth’s atmosphere in late January of 1975, and since the crew had returned to earth months before, it was carried out remotely.
Because there’s no atmospheric friction in space, thrusters were also used to counteract the cannon’s recoil.
Then just before the station’s pre-planned descent, an operator at a control panel somewhere deep in the Baikonur Cosmodrome pushed a button, after which the R-23 expelled 20 shells in three short bursts.
Since it was just a test and because no actual targets were used, the gun and station were simply pointed toward the earth.
Each round rocketed from the barrel as planned, then flamed out and disintegrated in dramatic fashion upon passing into the earth’s thick atmosphere.
It’s anybody’s guess where the cannon from Salyut-3 ended up, but the Soviets had done such a good job keeping the aircraft variant a secret, that the west didn’t know of its existence until nearly a decade later, when the Soviets began exporting bombers equipped with RM-23s to Middle Eastern allies like Libya and Iraq.
In 1987 during a nearly decade long border war, a Chadian anti-aircraft battery downed one such Libyan Tu-22.
Later, when a French bomb squad was called in to inspect and clear the wreckage, they discovered the revolutionary cannon and sent it away for closer examination.
By the early ‘80s the Soviets had more than a half dozen space stations in orbit, but after Salyut-3 was mothballed in 1978, none was ever again armed – at least officially.
Considering the rapid nature of technological advances during the Cold War, it’s likely that future space stations would have been equipped with more capable and sophisticated weapons like guided rockets, lasers and electromagnetic railguns.
Technically, the revolutionary cannons remained classified until well after the fall of the Soviet Union, but in 2016 grainy photographs and film clips were revealed on a Russian television program with known ties to the Ministry of Defense.
According to the show’s host, the images showed the cannon that had been fired from Salyut-3.
In the end however, it matters little, because the Yanks and Reds never exchanged cannon, rocket or laser fire in space.
Then again maybe they did, and we just don’t know about it.
Whatever the case, one thing is clear – when it comes to top-secret space weapons, we’ll probably never really know what armed contraptions are floating in the heavens above us.