Move over, Star Wars. Around the same time that Han Solo was declaring the superiority of a blaster by your side, Russian engineers were working on a real laser pistol for cosmonauts to carry, another piece of the secret Soviet arsenal of space weapons.
According to multiple Russian sources, the laser-powered handgun for cosmonauts originated at the Peter the Great RVSN academy, which trains engineers for the nation’s strategic missile forces. The school’s museum carries a copy of the gun, and at least one other surviving artifact was exhibited at the Innovations and Inventions Expo in Moscow in 2011.
Demyan Makarenko, who represented the Peter the Great Academy at that event, said in a video interview that the laser space gun had been conceived for the Soviet military space station Almaz (“diamond”), which was under development in the USSR in the second half of the 1960s and first flew in 1973. We already knew the Soviets made a conventional orbital cannon to be installed on the exterior of the Almaz. However, the personal laser handgun remained in obscurity.
Some Russian sources characterized the laser pistol as an individual self-defense weapon for cosmonauts in orbit, making an impression that the Soviet space crews were preparing for shootouts with their enemies inside the space station. But even in the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War, it would be hard to imagine a scenario in which American “space troopers” would be able to rendezvous, dock, and break into the pressurized compartment of a Soviet orbital facility. Even if they did, a relatively weak laser gun would be a questionable defense.
“Sorry, I have to tell you right away, it has no deadly force, so you wouldn’t be able to see a hole in the head of your ‘client’ after firing this thing…” Makarenko joked in the video interview.
Instead, the device appears to be an anti-satellite weapon, designed to blind sensitive optics and other sensors aboard a hostile spacecraft that dared to approach the Soviet orbiter. Back then, spacefaring countries were considering projects with robotic and even piloted inspector spacecraft that would be able to intercept, photograph, and even physically interact with un-cooperating satellites. Soviet space strategists even suspected that the Space Shuttle, which began development in 1971, would be able to snatch their secret satellites from orbit and even carry them back to Earth inside its huge cargo bay.
[via Popular Mechanics]