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, 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.

About Jay Garmon

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...

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