That Time The Soviets Fired A Cannon In Space
Much to the disappointment of science fiction fans everywhere, there has only ever been one cannon ever fired in space. As part of the classified Soviet Almaz program, and details on it remain secret to this day. What is known, though, is that in 1975, a cannon mounted on a Soviet Space station fired once and never again.
The story of the Soviet space cannon is one small chapter in the much larger Space Race in which the U.S. and Soviet Union tried to one-up each other in space travel. The Almaz program was started in the 1960s to put military space stations in orbit to perform surveillance duties and other covert tasks.
However, development on space stations was rushed, as the Soviets and Americans wanted to be the first to get a space station in orbit, regardless of what purpose the stations had once they were up there. On the Soviet side, this resulted in the Salyut program, a civilian space station program that launched its first space station in 1971. This successful Salyut launch led to a total of seven Salyut space stations. While these were all civilian stations on the surface, three of them were part of the Almaz program, and this is where the space cannon comes back into the picture.
The Space Race, like every part of the Cold War, was tense, and both sides had good reason to be concerned that the other would attack. So the natural solution to these fears was mounting a cannon to an Almaz space station.
When selecting the first cannon to go to space, the R-23M cannon was given the duty. The R-23M was a 23-millimeter cannon that had previously been used as the tail gun in the Tu-22 “Blinder” bomber. It fired 200-gram shells at 1,500 miles per hour.
The actual firing of the R-23M came from the Salyut-3 space station in 1975, the third Salyut space station, and the second secret Almaz station in the program. Salyut-3 was launched into orbit in 1974, but the cannon was not fired until the station’s last day in orbit on January 24, 1975. The test-fire was done remotely after the crew had already departed.
This was done because firing a cannon in space is a nightmare of physics issues. For starters, the cannon could not be aimed separately from the space station. This meant that the entire station had to be turned to aim the R-23M. Next, the recoil of the cannon would affect the position of the space station due to the conditions of space, so to counteract this, jet thrusters had to fire at the same time as the cannon. In short, firing a cannon in space was hardly practical.
They did it, though, and fired about 20 rounds from three bursts of the cannon. Any other details of the cannon test remain classified. However, future Soviet space stations did not seem to include an R-23M or any other cannon, so that may speak to the effectiveness. This is only speculation, though.
The public got to first see the space cannon in 2015, 40 years after it was fired, when footage was shown on Russian television. While the classified parts of history may show that other covert space weapons were tested or used, the 1975 Soviet space cannon is the only known instance of a weapon fired in space.
Top Image: NASA