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We know that on February 11 1985, right after the Soviets lost control of their Salyut-7 station. US Space tracking assets also started noticing that the station was starting to tumble.

Kidnapping a Soviet space station

US space tracking assets had immediately noticed that Salyut was tumbling out of control and, within hours, the Pentagon had come up with a plan too tempting to resist.

At that time the Challenger was undergoing some of its final preparations for an upcomming mission to launch 2 small satelites from it's cargobay into orbit. Instead different plans were made

Why not launch it with an empty cargo bay instead, send it to Salyut-7, and snatch the station from orbit, allowing the US to steal sensitive military secrets from the Russians? Just hours after control over Salyut-7 had been lost, National Security Agency director Lincoln Faurer called President Ronald Reagan in the middle of the night to brief him about the plan. After some hesitation, the President granted his permission.

Shuttle and Salyut: A Lost Opportunity

From the article I can read that they were pretty close to a actual mission. Had it not been for Chernenko dying around the same time

On March 10, the mission was ready to go. But then, with just hours to go in the countdown, news arrived from Moscow that the ailing Chernenko had passed away earlier that day. The news wasn’t unexpected, but couldn’t have come at a worse time. In the power vacuum left by Chernenko’s death, the Soviet response to the Salyut-7 capture became unpredictable and the Americans considered it prudent to call off the mission. Officially, the launch was scrubbed for technical reasons.

I would like to know how feasible this plan actually was.

  • How would they have mounted Salyut-7 inside the cargobay of the Challenger that would allow for a atmospheric re-entry without the cargo tumbling around inside the cargobay?
  • Would they have to change the landing procedure since the shuttle is much heavier with the cargo inside the cargobay?
  • Has any Space Shuttle ever returned from space with a payload that heavy as Salyut-7?
  • How would they have moved the Salyut-7 inside the cargobay?
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    $\begingroup$ The mass of the Salyut-7 (about 19 tonnes) was over the listed maximum for shuttle return, of 14.4 tonnes. I don't know if this could be finagled, it's not that far out of spec. The lack of suitable mounting points is likely to be a greater impediment. The presence of unsecured hypergolic fuel in the thruster system would be very scary indeed. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2021 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ The article you linked seems to conclude there was never any US plan, only a vague suspicion on the Soviet side that they might have been thinking about one. It might be worth emphasising in the question that this is entirely hypothetical - if the US had tried to do this, how could they have made it work? $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2021 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ Although the much more likely scenario is a repeat of the Lunik stunt - lots of work on site with cameras, measure tape, and all kinds of mostly non-invasive analytic equipment, leaving the station in orbit exactly as they found it a couple hours later. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Aug 26, 2021 at 10:25
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    $\begingroup$ Re From the article I can read that they were pretty close to a actual mission. Did you finish reading the article? It starts with a summary of a 2011 Russian documentary. The author of the Space Review article later goes on to debunk the story and describes as a fabrication. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2021 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ Quoting the article you linked: "It takes only some basic fact checking to debunk all the preposterous allegations made in the documentary." The only possible response to reading half an article is a down vote. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 26, 2021 at 20:48

2 Answers 2

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No work was ever done on this in the Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS), so they were nowhere "close to an actual mission". Not even any testing.

Source: I worked to some extent on all missions in the SMS from 1983-1996, including the classified ones.

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    $\begingroup$ Then you should neither confirm nor deny that "work was ever done on this in the Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS)". I suggest you review the requirements of your lifelong NDA. $\endgroup$
    – Glen Yates
    Aug 26, 2021 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ Only on StackExchange would an answer like that get a comment like that. No doubt the contributor already checked with relevant authorities whether the Salyut retrieval mission is discussable. Since this isn't the first time that's been asked.... $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2021 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ @GlennYates I can also confirm we had no dead Zeta Reticulans. BTW, they aren't called NDAs in the DOD world. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2021 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble pretty sure my forms said if I crossed the street with my shoelaces untied the FBI was coming after me. Maybe I'm misremembering, but I moved to Canada just in case. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Aug 27, 2021 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ @fectin They're CINAs, since there is no word that starts with D, it doesn't make it into the abbreviation. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Aug 27, 2021 at 19:52
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From the article I can read that they were pretty close to a actual mission

The article doesn't say this. It reports what a modern documentary claims, and then goes on to say that the documentary's claims seem to be mostly fiction or misunderstanding.

Does this all sound too crazy to be true? Not to the makers of a Russian television documentary called “The Battle for Salyut: A Space Detective”, who present this Hollywood-like scenario as plain fact.

In short,

  • most of the Shuttle missions named can be dated as being planned, or changed, well before the Salyut developments;
  • there is no evidence a previous Shuttle flight ever tried to rendezvous with Salyut 7, or would have been able to do so without it being obvious to the world;
  • there is no documentary evidence from the US side to support it, and only one fragmentary piece of evidence presented from the Soviet side to say that they were worried about it as a possibility.

So it seems overwhelmingly likely that there was never any plan by NASA to try and recover a Salyut, making the question of feasibility a bit moot. In any case, the article discusses this question and concludes it would have been impractical, especially for a single mission without prior preparation. The Salyut hull would have physically fit into the space in the cargo bay, but that was about all:

Nonetheless, it would have taken a lot of work to prepare the station for retrieval. First of all, a number of spacewalks would have been required to remove appendages, such as the huge solar arrays and various antennas from the station’s hull. Next, crews would have had to unload equipment from the station’s interior to make it light enough for the return trip to Earth. The maximum payload return capability of the Space Shuttle was about 14.5 tons (not 27 tons as claimed in the documentary), but Salyut weighed about 20 tons at launch in 1982 and three years later had become even heavier after numerous resupply missions. Among a lengthy list of other problems would have been the absence of grapple fixtures and compatible docking systems to catch and enter the station. While all this would have been challenging enough for well-prepared Russian Buran crews with full knowledge of the station’s design details, it would have been an almost impossible task for a US Shuttle crew and certainly not one that could be accomplished in a single mission.

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    $\begingroup$ Leaving out all the technical difficulties, wouldn't this have been considered an act of war? Or at the very least, piracy - Salyut was Soviet property. $\endgroup$
    – GordonD
    Aug 26, 2021 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ @GordonD yes - politically I think a recovery mission like this, especially of such a prominent target, would have been far too belligerent to be seriously proposed. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2021 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @GordonD, it's complicated. Since Salyut was out of control, the US could try invoking maritime law and claiming salvage rights. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 26, 2021 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ Wasn't there a TV show where Andy Griffeth built his own space program from a junkyard, and went up and salvaged abandoned satellites? Ah yes, Salvage One. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2021 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark NASA claims ownership of all its space hardware anywhere on Earth and in space, regardless of its current state and whether someone else recovers it - see the claims for the Saturn V engines recovered from the Atlantic etc etc. Would be hard to see how two substantially opposing stances could be reconciled... $\endgroup$
    – Moo
    Aug 27, 2021 at 0:31

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