Has Anyone Ever Fired a Gun in Space, Space Cannons, and the Guns Designed for Astronauts?
Space: the final frontier – or, if science fiction is to be believed – the final battlefield. In the land of sci-fi, no self-respecting Starfleet officer on an away mission or scruffy-looking nerf-herding smuggler would dare leave their spacecraft without a trusty phaser or blaster at their side. Even in universes where directed-energy weapons have not yet been invented – such as those of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and Alien – everyone, it seems, is armed to the teeth with a variety of pistols, rifles, shotguns, and machine guns. But that is fiction; what about real life? Has anyone ever blasted into the wild blue yonder packing heat? As it turns out, yes – though not for the reasons you might think.
Though today space travel is associated with peaceful exploration and scientific research, in the early days the conquest of outer space was a decidedly military affair, with the Space Race serving as a more peaceful proxy to the Cold War smouldering down on the surface. The Soviet R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957, was also the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, designed to carry a nuclear warhead from the Soviet Union to the United States. Indeed, most of the United States’ early space rockets, such as the Redstone and the Atlas, were modified nuclear missiles, while no sooner had the Space Race begun than both sides set out to militarize the final frontier. In 1958, for example, the United States Air Force authorized Project A119, a top-secret project to detonate a nuclear warhead on the surface of the moon. The project, which included among its research team a young Carl Sagan, was justified as a scientific experiment to study lunar geology. Its main aim, however, was to intimidate the Soviets and boost the morale of the American people in the wake of the Sputnik crisis. While A119 and its Soviet equivalent, Project E-4, were never carried out, between 1958 and 1962 both superpowers set off a series of 22 nuclear explosions in space and the upper atmosphere as part of research into anti-ballistic missile systems – and for more on these tests and their unexpected effects, please check out our previous videos That Time the US Accidentally Nuked Britain’s First Satellite, and Do Real EMP Weapons Exist, or Are They Only a Thing in Movies?
Throughout the early Cold War, the drawing boards of both American and Soviet designers overflowed with increasingly fanciful designs for orbital weapons platforms, nuclear-armed space planes, and lunar military bases. But the potential escalation of the Cold War into Outer Space made many back on earth extremely nervous, and on January 27, 1967, the Soviet Union, United States, and United Kingdom signed the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies – better known as the “Outer Space Treaty.” Among other provisions, the treaty declared space to be open and free for peaceful exploration by all states, prohibited states from claiming sovereign territory or building military installations on the moon and other celestial bodies, and banned the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space.
While the United States and most other spacefaring nations have so far largely adhered to the terms of the treaty, the Soviet Union – and later Russian Federation – have been, shall we say, rather more relaxed in their interpretation, with cosmonauts regularly carrying firearms into orbit. But these weapons were not, however, intended for use against waves of attacking U.S. Space Marines, but for a far more practical purpose – inspired by one particularly eventful space mission.
On March 18, 1965, 30-year-old cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made history by becoming the first human to perform an extravehicular activity or “spacewalk”, floating outside his Voskhod II spacecraft for 12 minutes. His triumph, however, was short-lived, for almost immediately the mission began to go horribly wrong. When Leonov tried to crawl back through the capsule’s inflatable airlock, he discovered that his space suit had ballooned in the vacuum of space and he could no longer fit through the hatch. After several minutes of fruitless struggling, Leonov – knowing full well that his pilot Pavel Belyayev’s orders should he fail to return were to cut him and the airlock free, proceeded to bleed air from his suit, risking decompression sickness -AKA “the bends” – in the process. In the end, Leonov managed to get back aboard the spacecraft, but he and Belyayev’s problems were far from over. As the cosmonauts prepared for reentry, their automatic guidance system failed, forcing them to switch to manual override. The equipment module then failed to fully separate from the orbital module, causing the spacecraft to tumble violently end-over-end as it plunged through the atmosphere. Finally, at an altitude of 100 kilometres, the cables connecting the two modules burned through, and the remainder of the reentry and parachute deployment proceeded uneventfully.
However, the failure of the automatic guidance system resulted in the spacecraft overshooting its intended landing site by nearly 400 kilometres and touching down in the remote, heavily-forested Perm region of the Ural Mountains. Upon landing, the capsule’s hatch automatically blew off, exposing the cosmonauts – who had not been provided with winter clothing – to the extremely frigid elements. And as if to add insult to injury, the cabin heater failed while the cooling fans remained jammed on, blasting the Leonov and Belyayev with cold air through the night. Even worse, the Siberian forests, the cosmonauts knew, was crawling with dangerous predators including wolves, eurasian brown bears, and even Siberian tigers – made even more aggressive by the advent of mating season. The capsule’s survival kit did include a Makarov PM semi-automatic pistol for foraging and defence against predators, but its rather anemic 9x18mm cartridge would have been next to useless against an angry bear or tiger.
Thankfully, Leonov and Belyayev encountered no local wildlife, and the next morning their capsule was spotted by a search-and-rescue helicopter. However, the landing site was too densely forested for the helicopter to land, so the crew instead dropped warm clothing, water, food, and other supplies to the cosmonauts before landing a team of ski-equipped rescue troops in a clearing 9 kilometres away. With the help of their new supplies, Leonov and Belyayev built a crude log cabin and a fire and sat tight awaiting rescue. Finally, after three nights in the Siberian wilderness, they were reached by the recovery forces and skied the 9 kilometres back to the helicopter landing site, from where they were flown to Perm and finally to Moscow.
Though Leonov and Belyayev, both experienced hunters and outdoorsmen, were never in any real danger, their ordeal nonetheless prompted Leonov to request a more powerful and versatile survival weapon be developed for future space missions. The result was the TP-82 Cosmonaut Survival Pistol, designed in 1981 by Igor Aleksandrovich Skrylev of the Tula Arms Plant. 36 centimetres long and weighing only 2.4 kilograms, the TP-82 features not one barrel but three: two smoothbore shotgun barrels chambered in the proprietary 12.5 x 70mm shell – roughly equivalent to 40 gauge – and a lower rifled barrel chambered for the same 5.45x39mm cartridge as the Soviet military’s standard-issue AK-74 rifle – and for more on how the confusing “gauge” measurement system works, please check out our previous video What’s Up With Measuring So Many Things in “Gauge”? The single-shot weapon, which is reloaded by tipping the barrels forward like regular break-action sporting shotgun, has two external hammers: the one on the right fires the right-hand shotgun barrel, while the one on the left can be switched to fire either the left-hand shotgun barrel or the lower rifle barrel. For more accurate shooting, the weapon is provided with a
a detachable shoulder stock that doubles as a machete for clearing brush or chopping firewood. Stored in a special survival kit compartment beneath the crew couches of the Soyuz spacecraft, the TP-82 is issued with a special Granat-6 canvas belt incorporating holsters for the weapon and its machete-stock and ammunition pouches holding 10 shotgun shells loaded with birdshot, 10 flares for signalling rescue aircraft, and 11 rounds of 5.45 rifle ammunition. Unlike military ammunition, however, the TP-82 rifle cartridges feature expanding soft-point bullets for maximum effect against large predators. Such bullets have been illegal for use in warfare since the signing of the Hague Convention of 1899.
In testing the TP-82 proved remarkably rugged and accurate, with the final evaluation report stating:
“… [the weapon] underwent comprehensive tests in different climatic zones of the countries, which confirmed its high reliability and effectiveness under extreme conditions. In testing the weapon was fired at a variety of animals and birds. Using the rifled barrel evaluators successfully brought down moose, wolverines, loitered gazelles, saiga, and foxes with body weights of up to 200 kilograms from distances up to 200 metres. Using the shotgun barrels they took down hares, foxes, geese, partridges, doves, pheasants, and seagulls.”
In parallel with the TP-82, Tula also developed the more advanced TOZ-81 ‘Mars’ pistol. Unlike the single-shot TP-82, the TOZ-81 was a double-action revolver with a five-shot cylinder. Two versions were designed: one with a rifled barrel chambered for the 5.45x39mm cartridge and one with a smoothbore barrel for .410 bore shotgun shells filled with buckshot or dart-like flechettes. A true Swiss army knife of a gun, the TOZ-81 featured a flip-out survival knife mounted above the barrel and a compact radio transmitter built into its detachable aluminium shoulder stock.
In the end, however, the rugged simplicity of the TP-82 won out over the more complex TOZ-81, and in 1982 the former was officially adopted as part of the Soyuz survival kit, first flying into space aboard the Soyuz T-6 mission on June 24 of that year. The total number of TP-82s manufactured is not known, but production at Tula ceased around 1987 once enough guns and ammunition had been made to last the space program and the Soviet Air Force several decades.
In keeping with the infamously secretive nature of the Soviet space program, for many years the TP-82 remained something of an open secret, the weapon rarely glimpsed by western eyes. But as more and more western astronauts began flying aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the unique “cosmonaut pistol” came to be more widely known. Training on the TP-82 is considered the highlight of the standard cosmonaut survival course, carried out on the shores of the Black Sea. After learning how to safely exit a capsule which has landed in water, trainees are invited to fire a few shots off the deck of the training vessel. As U.S. astronaut James Voss recalled:
“It was amazing how many wine, beer, and vodka bottles the crew of the ship could come up with for us to shoot at. The TP-82 was very accurate. We threw the bottles as far as possible, probably 20 or 30 meters, then shot them. It was trivial to hit the bottles with the shotgun shells, and relatively easy to hit them with the rifle bullets on the first shot.”
Yet despite the very practical reasons for the TP-82’s creation and adoption, the idea of cosmonauts carrying guns into space makes some people more than a little nervous. Among these is American journalist James Oberg, who for decades has doggedly lobbied to have all firearms removed from Russian space missions. For while we might think of astronauts as morally upright, hyper-competent ‘steely-eyed missile men,’ in the end, Oberg argues, they are merely humans with very human failings. For example, in February 2007, NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested after attempting to kidnap Colleen Shipman, the lover of her husband, fellow astronaut William Oefelein. Wearing adult diapers to avoid making stops, Nowak drove over 1,400 kilometres from Houston, Texas, to Orlando, Florida, where she tracked Shipman down to the Orlando Airport parking lot and pepper-sprayed her through her open car window. Nowak later pleaded guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanour battery and was sentenced to one year’s probation, while she and Oefelein became the first astronauts ever to be dismissed from NASA. That same year on April 20th, 60-year old engineer William Phillips smuggled a revolver into the Johnson Spaceflight centre in Houston and used it to kill electronics specialist David Beverley. Phillips then held contract worker Fran Crenshaw hostage and, after a tense three-hour standoff with police, turned the gun on himself. A later investigation determined that Phillips was likely motivated by fears of being fired due to poor work performance.
Given the potential for even highly-trained spaceflight personnel to suffer severe mental breakdowns, the presence of readily-available firearms aboard the Soyuz and the International Space Station is, James Oberg argues, a disaster waiting to happen. He has thus tirelessly lobbied Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to implement stricter security measures, such as storing survival weapons in a locked compartment with a key controlled by capsule commander or – even better – in an exterior compartment accessible only once the capsule has safely returned to earth. Oberg has even questioned the necessity of carrying weapons in the first place, as vastly improved spacecraft tracking and recovery procedures have rendered a Voskhod II – style survival scenario highly unlikely.
Thankfully, whether due to Oberg’s efforts or not, significant progress has been made in this area. In 2006, Roscosmos announced that the TP-82 survival pistol had been retired, stocks of its proprietary 12.5 x 70mm shotgun shells having become unusable due to age. It was replaced in the Soyuz survival kit by a regular semi-automatic pistol, most likely the standard Russian forced issue MP-443 Grach. But even this, it turns out, is not always carried into orbit. Just prior to her record-breaking 199-day stay aboard the International Space Station, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti approached James Oberg with what she called “a really good story about the gun.” During training at Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre outside Moscow – better known as “Star City” – Cristoforetti and her fellow trainees were asked to list the contents of the standard Soyuz survival kit:
“Then, to show off I knew even more, I added that a pistol had once been on this list but had recently been removed. [After congratulating me on a perfect score], the instructor corrected me: ‘The pistol is still on the official list of kit contents, but before every mission we meet to review that list and vote to remove it for this specific flight.’”
Thus, the odds of a gunfight breaking out aboard the International Space Station are -for now, at least – mercifully low. Should a dispute between astronauts ever reach the point of physical violence, their only recourse will be to old-fashioned fisticuffs. Captain Kirk would be proud.
But the story doesn’t quite end there, for while the TP-82s, Makarovs, and other pistols carried by cosmonauts were never intended for use in orbit, another – much larger – Soviet weapon most definitely was, and holds the distinction of being the only gun ever to be fired in space.
In the late 1960s, the United States Air Force began work on a project known as Manned Orbiting Laboratory or MOL, a manned space station based on NASA’s Gemini space capsule. Manned by two astronauts and travelling in a polar orbit, MOL would be equipped with powerful surveillance cameras, allowing it to take detailed photographs of Soviet military installations and other targets. When the Soviets learned of MOL, they immediately began developing their own reconnaissance space stations, codenamed Almaz or “diamond”. To conceal the military nature of the project, the Almaz stations were flown under the cover of the civilian Salyut space station project. The first Almaz station, designated OPS-1 or Salyut 2, was launched on April 3, 1973. Three days after reaching orbit, however, one of the fuel tanks of the Proton rocket that launched Salyut 2 exploded, showering the station with debris and leaving it severely damaged and unusable. The station reentered the atmosphere and burned up on May 28, having never been visited by any crews.
The next Almaz station to be launched was Salyut 3 on June 25, 1974. In addition to powerful surveillance cameras and radars and signals intelligence gear, Salyut 3 carried a nasty surprise: a Nudelman-Rihkter R-23M automatic cannon. Developed in 1959 by the KB Tochmash design bureau as a radar-guided defensive weapon for the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder jet bomber, the R-23M could fire specialized 23 mm shells at a rate of 950-5,000 rounds per minute, allowing Salut 3 to engage and destroy targets up to 2 kilometres away. The cannon, intended for self-defence against American spacecraft seeking to inspect, board, or destroy the station, was mounted rigidly to Salyut 3’s hull, meaning the entire 20-ton station had to be reoriented in order to aim the gun. Maneuvering thrusters were used to counter the recoil of the weapon and prevent the station from drifting during firing.
Salyut 3’s cannon was test-fired for the first – and only – time on January 24, 1975. Though the weapon was eventually intended to be operated by the station’s crew, concerns over excessive noise and vibration led to the test being conducted after the last crew had departed, the station and gun being controlled remotely from the ground. While the results of the test are still classified, unconfirmed reports indicate that it was a success, with the gun firing three short bursts, expending a total of 20 rounds, and successfully destroying a target satellite. Sadly, any existing footage of the test was lost when the station was deorbited and burned up mere hours later. The third and final Almaz station to be launched, Salyut 5, dispensed with the gun, though the planned – but never flown – OPS-4 station was to have carried a pair of interceptor missiles instead. By this time, however, the concept of manned reconnaissance space stations had fallen out of favour, unmanned spy satellites being capable of performing the same mission far more cheaply and efficiently. Consequently, in 1978 the Almaz program – like the MOL project which first inspired it – was declared obsolete and cancelled.
The cannon aboard Salyut 3 remains the only offensive weapon known to have deliberately tested in space – though this was not for lack of trying. Though the 1967 Outer Space Treaty expressly forbids the stationing of weapons in orbit, treaties, as history has shown us, are made to be broken, and throughout the late 20th Century both the United States and Soviet Union carried right along trying to militarize the final frontier. The most famous of these attempts was the American Strategic Defense Initiative – better known as ‘Star Wars’ – a proposed system of orbital and ground-based lasers, interceptor missiles, and other weapons designed to shoot down Soviet ballistic missiles and render the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal useless. But while many components of the system were tested throughout the 1980s, no operational weapons ever reached orbit. Similarly, on May 15, 1987, the Soviets attempted to launch Polyus, an orbital weapons platform with a megawatt-power carbon dioxide laser designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missile warheads. However, a programming error caused the spacecraft to become misaligned during launch, and it never reached orbit. Since then, the United States, Russia, France, and other countries have announced various designs for orbital weapons designed to disable or destroy enemy warheads or satellites, but so far as is known, none of these has ever left the drawing board. May it always remain that way.
And now one final note before we end the video, since by now most of you are probably wondering: yes, regular firearms will indeed work in outer space. The propellant powder in firearm cartridges contains its own source of oxygen, meaning that it will ignite and burn even in a total vacuum. The rest of a typical firearm’s mechanism is similarly space-proof, with one major exception: grease and lubricating oil, which may evaporate, congeal, or otherwise stop working properly in the vacuum of space. This is, however, easily mitigated through the use of specialized lubricants designed for use in space or – in a pinch – by dispensing with lubricants entirely. Indeed, this was the solution favoured by German troops fighting on the Russian Front during the Second World War, when freezing temperatures caused ordinary lubricating oil to congeal and guns to jam. In desperation, German armorers soaked soldiers’ weapons in gasoline to remove all traces of oil. While these unlubricated weapons wore out very quickly, under the circumstances they were better than nothing. Another potential issue with using regular firearms in space is the dark finish on the metal, which will readily absorb the intense solar radiation – causing the weapon to overheat and ammunition to prematurely ignite or “cook off”. However, this too is easily mitigated through the use of reflective white or metallic coatings – meaning the absurdly shiny ray guns in old sci-fi movies served a practical purpose after all. But perhaps the greatest challenge to using guns in space is Newton’s Third Law, for unless a wannabe space cowboy is firmly anchored to the hull of a spacecraft or equipped with maneuvering thrusters, in a microgravity environment the recoil from even a regular handgun is enough to send them drifting and tumbling uncontrollably. But perhaps this is for the best. After all, we have enough violence and warfare down here on earth; let’s leave our weapons at the launch pad, shall we?
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