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.

Get ready for the Geekend

The Trivia Geek‘s
blog has been reborn as the
Geekend
, an online archive of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant —
unless you’re a hardcore geek with a penchant for science fiction, technology,
and snark. Get a daily dose of subcultural illumination by joining the
seven-day Geekend.

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!

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive,
and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Test your command of
useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic’s Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically
sign up today!

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.