After Hours

Geek Trivia: Fire(arms) in the sky

What was the only externally armed manned spacecraft ever flown?

On May 3, 2003, Expedition 6 astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit, along with cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, endured a particularly nerve-racking reentry when their Soyuz capsule malfunctioned during its descent from the International Space Station before finally landing hundreds of miles away from the designated touchdown area. It's a good thing they were armed.

Expedition 6's reentry was much steeper than traditional return descents, and it subjected the capsule's occupants to extreme gravitational forces. This was an especially harrowing experience for NASA and Russian Space Agency officials, as the Expedition 6 crew was stuck on the ISS for about two months longer than planned due to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia during its own reentry in February 2003.

When the crew finally made it back to Earth -- even 300 miles off course -- it was a relief. Still, the Russian steppes aren't the best place for three microgravity-weakened individuals to have to fend for themselves for several hours, which is what happened when the Soyuz capsule strayed off course. That's where the firearms came in.

This was far from the first time that a Russian reentry vehicle had unexpectedly placed its crew in precarious situations on touchdown. Unlike the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury capsule landings that splashed down into a shock-absorbing ocean, Russia's Soyuz and Voskhod capsules returned to Earth over Soviet or Russian land territories. As a result, Russian space crews (and now international crews, since Soyuz capsules are available to return crews from the International Space Station) have experienced some rather colorful landing mishaps, one of which led to the first firearms ever placed in orbit.

In March 1965, cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov performed the first spacewalk when he successfully exited the safe confines of his Voskhod 2 capsule, but his entire mission was riddled with malfunctions and near-misses. A string of hardware failures to the capsule almost prevented the Voskhod 2 from safely deorbiting.

When it finally returned to Earth, the capsule set down wildly off target in the Ural Mountains. Leonov and fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev waited overnight for rescue, spending the interim fending off hungry wolves.

Subsequent manned Soviet or Russian spaceflights have boasted specially designed firearms for similar situations. So, guns have been going into space since the mid-1960s.

However, only one manned spacecraft has ever flown with external ship-to-ship armaments, an experiment never repeated.

WHAT WAS THE ONLY EXTERNALLY ARMED MANNED SPACECRAFT EVER FLOWN?

What was the only externally armed manned spacecraft, a one-time experiment -- at least according to all currently declassified documents?

On May 27, 1974, the Soviet Union launched the Salyut 3 unmanned space laboratory into orbit, complete with its own onboard machine gun designed specifically for use against enemy spacecraft. The weapon was a 23-millimeter Nudelman NR-23 rapid-fire modified air-to-air cannon guided by a periscope targeting aid.

Records are unclear as to whether either of the two Soyuz crews that joined the craft in orbit during the summer of 1974 actually fired the weapon. Some sources claim Soviet ground control remotely test-fired the weapon after all crews left the station.

Due to the risk of damaging or inadvertently deorbiting the craft via recoil forces, the weapon's design required that the crew actually rotate the entire station using thrusters to target the gun. Firing the gun required additional thruster burns to prevent the craft from moving backward in reaction to the projectile launch.

The gun proved so technically unfeasible in orbit that the Soviet Union omitted it from the comparable Salyut 5 space station launched in 1976. Despite their designations, neither Salyut 3 nor Salyut 5 were part of the same spaceflight project as the other five civilian orbital laboratories that bore the name Salyut.

Instead, Salyuts 3 and 5 were part of the Soviet Almaz Project -- Almaz translates as diamond -- tasked with developing military orbital platforms for research, defense, and intelligence-gathering purposes. The gun-toting space lab and its similar but unarmed counterpart bore the Salyut name as a means of disguising the military design effort from Western observers.

In addition to its weapon, Salyut 3 also boasted a sophisticated array of cameras capable of taking highly sensitive orbital photographs, as well as pioneering crew water-recycling equipment. Despite these features, the probably unused and likely unusable external machine gun is what's earned Salyut 3 its unique place in space history -- and Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition (namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back) of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the February 14 edition of Geek Trivia, "Mother of invention." TechRepublic member ascott disputed my statement that ENIAC was the world's first fully programmable digital electronic computer.

"The Colossus computer was breaking ENIGMA codes in 1943, and Colossus 2 was built in 1946. Both pre-date ENIAC. The Zuse Z3 was built in 1941, so in no way was ENIAC the first. This is another case of Americans rewriting history to prove they invented everything."

Well, I won't quibble with your dates, ascott, just your definitions. The Zuse was an impressive machine, but it was electromechanical, not fully electronic. Meanwhile, the Colossus wasn't Turing complete.

Because ENIAC was both fully electronic and Turing complete, it's arguably the first truly modern computer -- though undoubtedly built on the shoulders of those impressive machines you mentioned. Keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

11 comments
tekless
tekless

Kinda miss the familiar, albeit corny "That's not just ..., it's ... Geek Trivia." Here's my candidate for this one: That's not just a bit of Soviet space history, its high-powered Geek Trivia.

jreinb7777
jreinb7777

Just wondered what happened to the Expedition 6 crew that they needed their weapons during their first few hours back on earth?? jon

davidbteague
davidbteague

I don't have dates, but, ABC, the Atanasoff - Berry Computer at the Univeristy of Iowa preceeded the ENIAC in time and technolgoy. In fact, this is the prior art that the courts used to invalidate the patent based on the ENIAC. Eckert and Mauchly visited the University of Iowa and inspected the ABC installation. The one problem that ABC had that ENIAC solved was an I/O issue. I believe the ABC was the first stored program general purpose computer. David B Teague Prof Computer Science (Retired) Western Carolina University Cullowhee NC

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Am I reading this correctly - the first implementation of a Turing-complete computer was the Z3 in 1941? Sort of contradicts the point of the article, no! Les. Charles Babbage's analytical engine (1830s) would have been Turing-complete if it had ever been built, but the first actual implementation appeared in 1941: the program-controlled Z3 of Konrad Zuse.

blawry
blawry

The Atanasoff-Berry Computer was developed at Iowa State University NOT the University of Iowa. Brian Lawry BSEE ISU

GNX
GNX

Are you sure Al "The Goracle" Gore didn't invent the first computer. I recall he invented the internet

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...the ABC was also Turing incomplete. I should probably have spelled that out more clearly in the article, but ENIAC--particularly after its ROM upgrade--was the first programmable, multipurpose, fully electronic, Turing complete computer. Turing complete, of course, is shorthand for a machine capable of performing any mathematical function (though not necessarily efficiently). Many of the early computers had "gaps" in their computational abilities, preventing them from performing certain mathematical functions. ENIAC didn't have this drawback.

phalacee
phalacee

if you read the little section before the link you'll see the following: "The Zuse was an impressive machine, but it was electromechanical, not fully electronic. Meanwhile, the Colossus wasn't Turing complete." See, the way I read that, is that although the Zuse Z3 was Turing complete, it wasn't fully electronic, and although the Colossus was fully electronic, it wasn't Turing complete. Check out the table at the bottom of the wikipedia page on the Z3: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z3 You can see from that table that the ENIAC was indeed the first fully electronic, Turing complete computer. Failing that, just look at the ENIAC page ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ENIAC ) the first few lines say it all: "ENIAC, short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was the first large-scale, electronic, digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems, although earlier computers had been built with some of these properties."

jchickory
jchickory

Okay, ENIAC appears to fit your criteria. But ENIAC was decimal based. That made it more complicated to program. So what was the first electronic programmable Turing-complete binary-based computer?

runningwolf
runningwolf

Okay, so I'm reading this article on firearms in space, then I see a post from an old professor my friends had (and I know you!) at WCU, then I see a post from my hometown (or area of) Hickory..... (I'm from Bethlehem.) Small World.

deepsand
deepsand

Are you referring to the underlying circuitry, or the external interface? For example, I worked with PENNSTAC, Penn State's "version" of ENIAC, nearly 50 years ago. While the external input was octal, the circuits were binary. And, why should Decimal be any more difficult than Binary, Octal or Hexadecimal?

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