The Rise and Fall of the Soviet 'Death Star'

Polyus was designed to destroy satellites with a one-megawatt laser.

The ambitions of the United States and the Soviet Union, late in the Cold War, to launch massive weapons into outer space sounds like a fever dream today. Few however know just how serious it got, with the USSR making impressive progress on plans for a so-called “Red Death Star” to be launched into orbit.

Despite signing a 1972 anti–ballistic missile treaty with the United States, the USSR continued research into missile defense well into the 1970s. When President Ronald Reagan announced his "Star Wars" concept in March 1983—a moonshot-like missile shield that would render ICBMs obsolete—the Soviets were ready with a response.

Had it worked our world might be a different place. But the Red Death Star crashed and burned, the victim of a crash program undertaken by a failing power. Nonetheless, the project's purpose and technology lived on, and may darken the skies again.


How War From Space Began

In the early glory days of spaceflight, both the Kremlin and the Pentagon sought military spacecraft able to engage and attack each others' space assets. The triumph of the Apollo moon project eclipsed the American Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). By 1975, when astronauts and cosmonauts met in space for the first time, space stations seemed the path to cooperation rather than competition in space.

But the Soviets saw in space stations a chance to surpass the Americans in one important field. The first Soviet space stations, the Salyuts, were in fact disguised military satellites. One mission even tested an anti-satellite cannon.

A year after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the Soviets began serious research into orbiting ABM weapons: the Skif-D laser and the anti-missile missile Kaskad. The massive vehicle designed for these weapons was called “Polyus,” or “[North] Pole.”

Why did the USSR plunge into space war in the middle of the era of detente? In part because of the Space Shuttle.

The U.S. Air Force had a large, if largely quiet, hand in the Shuttle's design and intended to fly classified payloads aboard the space plane. As the winged spaceship grew bigger and more complicated to meet the Pentagon's planned needs, Soviet observers saw it as a major space weapons system.

Space historian Asif Siddiqi has noted, "The shuttle really scared the Soviets big-time because they couldn't figure why you would need a vehicle like that, one that made no economic sense. So they figured that there must be some unstated military rationale for the vehicle—for example, to deliver and recover large space-based weapons platforms, or to bomb Moscow."

Meanwhile, Soviet success with space stations and experiments with laser weapons raised alarm bells among American defense hawks. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, a number of American weaponeers—chief among them Dr. Edward Teller—brought to the President's attention both the Soviet research effort and potential American countermeasures.


Pole Star

Ironically, Polyus began much the way as the Yankee Star Wars idea: a weapon to shoot down American ICBMs during their boost phase as they climbed into space on their journey of death. Like the MOL and the Salyuts, it was to be manned, until the Salyut missions proved definitively that a man in the loop added little but expense and complications.

Reagan's 1983 Star Wars speech electrified the Soviet leadership. As early as June 1984, the Kremlin determined to match the Americans and authorized the Polyus-Skif project. In 1986—the year the vast American R&D effort topped out at over $3 billion—the USSR launched a crash program to put their own battle station in orbit.

First intended as a Star Wars anti-missile weapon, the Red Death Star became instead a Jedi-killer, armed to the teeth and cloaked in secrecy. Its targets were the yet-to-be American battle stations that Soviet fears had created.

The USSR hid Polyus within its space station program, because Polyus was essentially a repurposed space station. It was huge: 187 feet long, over 16 feet in diameter and 80 tons, about the size of America's Skylab space station.

Polyus's "functional cargo block," or FGB—a repurposed spare of the Mir-2 space station's core—contained maneuvering rockets, solar panels and a power system. Its "purposeful module" contained a one-megawatt infrared laser, its fuel tanks and its turbogenerators.

The big laser proved too big for even the Proton rocket to lift, but the USSR's mighty new booster, the Energia, could loft both the weapon and its orbital platform. Delays in the Buran space shuttle program opened a slot for Polyus to ride the Energia rocket as its first payload.

Launch was set for early 1987. The crash Death Star testbed project ransacked much of the Soviet space program for parts. Engineers replaced the laser module, nowhere near ready for flight testing, with a boilerplate dummy. A lower-power laser designed to blind enemy satellites would test the targeting system.

The Soviets went to great lengths to hide Polyus in plain sight. Photos of Polyus on its Energia booster show it sheathed in a black low-visibility (possibly radar-absorptive) covering. A large laser reflector would permit ground sources to track the spacecraft without it transmitting.