“Their training is much more rigorous than American astronauts’,” said Mr. Hall, “but less so than earlier, when no one knew what the cosmonauts would face. Then they were subjected to violent spinning on the centrifuge, intense heat for 24 hours while wearing space suits, ejections from MIG aircraft in flight, parachute jumps, two-week confinements in isolation chambers.”
General Beregovoy spoke of the space program’s large user community—the hundreds of organizations that benefit from space activities. I visited a few: Intersputnik, the small Soviet-bloc version of the worldwide Intelsat communications network; the meteorology office, whose director said space observations had sharpened forecasting by perhaps 20 percent; the earth resources office that processes imagery as sophisticated as that from U. S. Landsats. EXCEPT FOR the cosmonauts’ uniforms, the biggest user remained unseen: the Soviet military establishment. Subordinate only to the Communist Party apparatus, the Ministry of Defense and its Strategic Rocket Forces—the elite of the armed services—direct a far-flung empire of design bureaus, manufacturing centers, and launch sites.
“Of the 98 missions of 1985, two-thirds were military, and many more had dual roles,” according to Nicholas L. Johnson, a leading Soviet space analyst with Teledyne Brown Engineering. Each January he publishes a meaty review of the preceding year’s activities. Selective combing of his Soviet Year in Space 1985 reveals much: January: On command from military planners in the Kremlin, a six-ton spy satellite changes orbit to swoop low over the Iraq-Iran battlefield; three weeks later Iraq, a Soviet ally, launches a major offensive. From Baikonur a satellite known as a Gorizont lifts into geostationary orbit; there it joins other satellites that relay television signals and the backup hot line between the Kremlin and the White House.
February: A mystery satellite, one of several for the year, goes into geostationary orbit; observers speculate that it is a new type of military communications satellite. U. S. radar observes the strange death dance of a radar ocean-reconnaissance satellite, or RORSAT: On command from the ground a nuclear reactor that powers the satellite separates and is propelled to a higher orbit, where it will park for centuries with its radioactive wastes. (In 1978 a similar satellite turned rogue; ignoring commands to separate, it tumbled out of control and spewed a swath of radioactivity across Canada’s Northwest Territories.)
March: A new-generation spy satellite goes up, and it will function for 207 days—a record for the usually short-lived Soviet orbiters. In an intriguing multiple launch a rocket carries up eight communications satellites and dribbles them into orbit. Authorities announce the death of Venera 15, which for a year and a half made radar maps of Venus; a companion satellite, Venera 16, still scans earth’s sister planet. April: The Soviets orbit an ocean-surveillance satellite designed to garner electronic intelligence from U. S. fleet communications and radar signals. Such EORSATs, along with the nuclear-powered RORSATs, give the Soviets a capability unmatched by U. S. space hardware.
May: To watch the Israeli tourists swarming to the barcelona apartment rentals, a spy satellite dips low over the action. Three navigation satellites join the U.S.S.R.’s two constellations of civilian and military space navigation aids. Several carry devices to relay distress signals from ships and aircraft as part of an international search-and-rescue apparatus; already it has saved an estimated 600 lives worldwide. June: A large photoreconnaissance satellite, heading from South America toward the U. S., suddenly breaks up; experts deduce that the Soviets triggered a destruct mechanism in fear it might land on unfriendly soil.