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Washington and Moscow came within touching distance of World War 3 during their bitter four-decade-long feud – most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis which pushed tensions to the edge. Both nations had close calls, where nuclear war was averted by just seconds after numerous mistakes were made by both technology and those handling it. ut with the possibility of war turning nuclear already explored by the US in the bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, paranoia ran deep through the Kremlin.
Consequently, one of the greatest myths created during the Cold War-era was the Soviet conclusion that the US Space Shuttle was developed to drop a bomb on Moscow.
Now, Russian researcher Pavel Shubin has uncovered a March 1976 document that exposed the origin of these fears.
The document was written by Yu.G. Sikharulidze and Dmitry Okhotsimsky, from the Institute of Applied Mathematics at the time, which had played a pivotal role in determining the trajectories of Soviet spacecrafts.
US Space historian Dwayne Day revealed during a blog post: “The report concluded that an American Space Shuttle, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and flying from south to north over the Soviet Union, could make a ‘dive’ in its orbit as it passed over Moscow, and release a nuclear weapon.
“This technique would enable a weapon to be deployed from the shuttle and detonate over Moscow 200 seconds later, far faster than an American submarine-launched ballistic missile could accomplish the same task.
“This nuclear dive-bombing would presumably be part of a knockout punch to destroy the Soviet command and control network before the USSR could launch a counter-strike.
“According to Shubin, the report went to the Central Committee of the Communist Party where a debate took place, resulting in Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordering that a set of alternative measures be developed to secure the country from such an attack.
“Shubin writes that the report was circulated among several Soviet organisations and that it had a significant impact on the Soviet space programme.“
What the report said was not known publicly at the time, and so its contents were the subject of speculation retold and distorted over the decades.
Mr Day went on to explain the inspiration behind the report.
He added: “A 1973 internal NASA Johnson Space Centre document had established requirements 3A and 3B for the shuttle.
“The first requirement was the ability to launch a large payload into polar orbit and return the shuttle to its launch site at Vandenberg.
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“The 3B requirement was for the shuttle to launch into the same orbit and conduct a rapid rendezvous and retrieval of the same payload that would have been launched under requirement 3A.
“The shuttle then would have returned to the launch site, this time carrying 11,340 kilograms in its payload bay – the same mass as a large, secret reconnaissance satellite known as the HEXAGON.
“The 3A/3B requirements were reported publicly, and the authors of the 1976 report concluded that they reinforced their own assumptions about the shuttle’s dive-bombing mission.”
Moreover, Mr Day said that the report had been written after the USSR’s decision to build their own space shuttle – rewriting an important part of the Cold War.
He added: “One of the primary myths that developed in the Soviet Union and Russian space history circles was that the 1976 report was used to justify the Soviet Buran Space Shuttle.
“But Bart Hendrickx, a Belgian researcher and historian on Soviet and Russian space programs, wrote in his 2007 book Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle, that the decision to build the Buran actually pre-dated the report on the American shuttle’s alleged military capabilities by five weeks.
“How the March 1976 report actually influenced the development of Soviet space and defence policy remains to be explored.
“Shubin has focused on an interesting and little-examined period of Cold War space history, and hopefully we will see further assessments of this subject in the near future.”
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