Post 3: Like a Diamond in the Sky
“I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."
- Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander, December 13 1972, Taurus-Littrow Valley.
As 1972 turned into 1973, the public focus of the space programmes of both Superpowers was shifting. The completion of the Apollo 17 mission signalled the end of America’s moon project, with attention switching to the upcoming launch of the Skylab space station and, beyond that, the development of a reusable Space Shuttle, turning space from an exotic location to explore into a place in which to live and work on a routine basis. Moreover, the signature the previous May of an agreement with the Soviets to conduct a joint mission in 1975 gave rise to hopes of a less confrontational future, in which both Superpowers could cooperate for the benefit of all humanity.
Publicly, the USSR embraced this position. After all, they had always been in favour of cooperation, and had refused to engage in the Moon Race, focussing instead on scientific robots and perfecting their crewed Soyuz spacecraft. It was the Americans who had seen competition where the Soviets had offered cooperation.
Behind the scenes, attitudes were somewhat different.
After eight years of development work, by the end of 1972 the first model of Vladimir Chelomei’s Almaz Orbital Piloted Station was finally nearing completion. OPS-1 consisted of two pressurised cylindrical sections, with propulsion systems, solar arrays and a docking port clustered at the rear of the larger cylinder. Along the belly of the two cylinders were arrayed apertures for a series of telescopes, including the giant Agat-1 photo-camera that filled much of the main compartment. These were all to be trained on the Earth’s surface, for Almaz was a military space station, conceived as a response to the USAF Manned Orbital Laboratory and sold to the Soviet military as a flexible and responsive reconnaissance platform.
Although this military function had until now kept the project cloaked in secrecy, by late 1972 there was a renewed political emphasis on using Almaz to claim another “first” for the USSR, by publicly beating Skylab to orbit with a crewed space station. To meet this objective not only would the station need to be ready, but so would a method of getting cosmonauts to Almaz. Chelomei’s original 1965 concept was to launch Almaz with a crew of three already onboard, in a VA return capsule attached to the front of the workshop. This idea had been scrapped by 1969, to be replaced by a separate Transport and Supply Ship (TKS), which combined the same VA design with a spacious Functional Cargo Block (FGB), providing crew facilities and consumables to support missions of several months. Unfortunately for Chelomei, TKS was running behind schedule, and was not expected to be available until the second half of the 1970s. In the meantime, Almaz would be forced to rely upon Mishin’s Soyuz for crew transfers.
To support Chelomei’s needs, Mishin had proposed a minimal upgrade of the 7K-OK design used for all Soyuz missions to date. He was planning a more extensive upgrade to support his own MKBS space station, but this was still many years in the future, and came well below N-1 and L3M on Mishin’s priority list. For Almaz, TsKBEM would simply update the Soyuz Habitation Module to include a docking probe with an internal transfer hatch compatible with Chelomei’s OPS design, but leave the rest of the ship more or less unchanged. Designated 7K-OKS, the upgraded Soyuz was the bare minimum needed to meet Chelomei’s requirements.
Mishin felt that the similarity with the earlier 7K-OK version meant that there was no need to waste effort and resources on a test flight programme for 7K-OKS, proposing instead to launch with a full crew on the very first mission to Almaz. Chelomei, unhappy with the marginal technical characteristics of the vehicle, disagreed, and succeeded in forcing a minimal test programme onto Mishin. This commenced with an uncrewed test flight in November 1971, under the designation Kosmos 456. The mission at first appeared to have been fully successful, but upon landing it was discovered that a fault in the separation of the Habitation Module from the Descent Module had caused all of the separation charges to fire together instead of in sequence, and this had triggered a valve to open prematurely and depressurise the Descent Module before landing. TsKBEM engineers made changes the the separation system to avoid such a problem in future, validating these with a second uncrewed test flight, Kosmos 490, in June 1972. This was followed in August by Soyuz 11, which launched cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Sevastiyanov on a five-day shakedown mission. The mission was a complete success, and Soyuz 7K-OKS was declared ready for regular service.
The focus now returned to Chelomei and Almaz, with work preceding around the clock at the integration building in Baikonur over the winter 1972/73 to get the station ready for launch. Finally, on 7th January 1973, a Proton-K rocket lifted from pad LC-81/23 and carried space station Almaz/OPS-1 into an initial 208km by 240km orbit. Over the next few days, Almaz used its own propulsion system to raise its orbit to a 240km x 256km transfer orbit, in preparation for entering its final operational orbit at 260km altitude. Telemetry showed good functioning of all on-board systems, and TASS announced with a fanfare that the USSR had placed into orbit the world’s first long duration space station (the qualifier of “long duration” being used to distinguish it from the docked Soyuz 4/5 spacecraft of 1969, which TASS had already claimed to be the “the world's first experimental cosmic station”).
Preparations were well underway for the launch of cosmonauts Popovich, Artyukhin and Patsayev aboard Soyuz 12 to take command of the station, when suddenly things started to go wrong.
Twelve days after Almaz reached orbit, and just two days before the planned launch of Soyuz 12, mission controllers at the Saturn-MS complex at Yevpatoria re-established contact after one of the regular communication blackouts to discover that the station’s electrical power generation had mysteriously dropped by half. Telemetry also showed that the control system propellant tanks had lost some pressure, indicating that Almaz’s automatic orientation thrusters had been fired. Several other systems had tripped into safe modes following the drop in power, but analysis over the next day confirmed that otherwise the station was functional. Communications remained good when the station was over Soviet ground stations, but full power could not be restored.
Following some additional checks, controllers were able to command Almaz to fire its main engines, raising the station’s perigee enough to remove the risk of an early re-entry. With no other indications of trouble, it was decided to proceed with the Soyuz 12 mission at the next nominal launch slot. Dictated by the orbital plane of the station, the planned 25 day duration of the mission, and by a desire to ensure good lighting conditions at the recovery zone for Soyuz to land, this indicated a launch on 3rd March 1973. Unless the Americans pulled a surprise, this would still leave plenty of time for Soyuz 12 to reach Almaz before Skylab could be launched. There was no indication of problems with the Almaz’s docking mechanisms or Igla rendezvous system, so the crew should be able to board the station. Just to be safe, it was decided to introduce a hold on the automatic approach at 50m to allow the cosmonauts to visually inspect the station before completing the docking manoeuvre. With this modification to the flight plan agreed, the State Commission approved Soyuz 12 for launch.
 There is some debate over the designation of this version of Soyuz, which IOTL only flew twice as Soyuz 10 and Soyuz 11. Some sources show it as 7KT-OK. In “Rockets and People
”, Chertok refers to these spacecraft as 7K-T No.31 and 32, with GRAU index
11F615A8, but this clashes with other sources that use 7K-T for the later, 2-person Soyuz ferry, which usually flew with no solar panels.
For my purposes, I have therefore just stuck with 7K-OKS, for no better reason than it’s the one used in the title of the Wikipedia page
 With no rush to meet the needs of Salyut-1, development of 7K-OKS is slower than IOTL, but probably consumes an equivalent number of engineer-hours due to the lower priority Mishin places on it - hey, it’s not his
mission on the line!
 This is, of course, exactly the failure that led to the Soyuz 11 tragedy IOTL. Here it’s picked up on an uncrewed test, but the far lower profile of the failure (no-one in the West even knows it occurred) means that less effort is put into fixing the many, many issues with 7K-OKS, and a “band-aid” solution is applied instead.
 This is a small change from the OTL crew of Soyuz 11, with Vitali Sevastiyanov replacing Viktor Patsayev ITTL. This is due to the changed nature of the mission as a brief test flight rather than a lengthy space station mission, and so the Research Engineer role is swapped out for a second Flight Engineer. IOTL, Sevastiyanov was on the Soyuz 11 backup crew. The original prime crew for Soyuz 11 IOTL was commanded by Alexei Leonov, but ITTL he has just completed a high profile mission on Soyuz 9/10, and so is out of rotation.