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  • Writer's pictureSophia Naylor

Space Cannon: "For A Brighter Tomorrow" Research

In writing, you must always "kill your darlings:" a violent metaphor for deleting what you wrote even when you like it a lot. In researching For A Brighter Tomorrow, there were so many elements I wish I could've included. The Arms Race and Space Race between the US and USSR were, to put it mildly, absolutely insane.

The Space Race was the fun one. We launched people into an inhospitable void in little capsules on top of rockets that were first designed as missiles. The Soviets got the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, but as a proud American, by God we got to the moon first.

The Arms Race was (and is) less fun. My grandmother is 90 and thriving, and when she was born, humanity was not yet able to destroy itself 50 times over (as a conservative estimate*). But that has always been my reality. Just another distressing fact you might eventually learn in school or at a very unpleasant family dinner.

And with that knowledge, I joined my fellow world citizens in coping by trying not to think about it too much. We often easily succeed: there's always a wedding to plan, a divorce to finalize, and so what if there's been close calls? We're still alive. And for me personally, if I'm laughing, I can't cry.

Which brings us to the space cannon.

The space cannon is an amazing brainchild of the Arms Race and Space Race. Why not put arms in space? The secret surveillance space station that is currently home to the play's two main characters is based on an actual Soviet craft: the Almaz (meaning diamond). In 1974 (the year the play takes place), the Almaz was sent into space as part of the Salyut program, which also had scientific missions. The Soviets claimed their military station was purely for research, but it was blatant for many reasons that it was decidedly not. My reading of the Cold War vibe was that there was a lot of pretending that obvious facts were secrets.

Back to the cannon.

There are hundreds of articles and videos on this (because it's a freaking cannon mounted outside a secret space station), but for research I usually end up on the more academic and technical side of the internet, and for primary sources, on the Russian side. Wikipedia gets a lot of flack, but as a tertiary (aka third party) source, it's indispensable. And what's more, you can easily switch between versions of the same article written in different languages.

The English and Russian versions of articles about the US and USSR vary in fascinating ways: often American successes are expounded upon in the English version, and diminished in the Russian (and visa versa). The sources cited are also different, and one source in particular brought me to a documentary about the Almaz, produced by the Russian military.** It's titled Программа «Военная приемка». Боевой «Алмаз», which roughly translates to: Military Acceptance Program. Combat "Diamond." Below is a still from the documentary showing the cannon, with the Almaz in the background. Both are reproductions; the real Almaz was "deorbited" (ie, flown into the Earth's atmosphere to burn up) in January 1975.

The cannon was designed as a defense against other satellites and stations, should they pose a risk to the Almaz. Derived from an aircraft weapon, it was capable of hitting targets up to 3 kilometers away, and fired 950 rounds per minute. It was remotely tested, and was a success. Good job, cannon! However, the vibrations produced meant that no cosmonauts were willing to test it while onboard.

It was also soon rendered obsolete, as surface-to-space anti-satellite weapons took its place. That little cannon seems quaint, now that China, India, Russia, and the United States have all spectacularly destroyed their own satellites. These shows of force have all added dangerous shards to the ever-growing hoard of space debris in orbit around Earth. On multiple occasions, the International Space Station was forced to maneuver out of way, and its crew take shelter.

But back in 1974, the Almaz cannon had an added hindrance of requiring the entire station to rotate in order to fire at the intended target, and needed systems in place to correct for the recoil. But the Soviets got it to work, and the Almaz's cannon can go down in history as yet another thing humanity built that probably didn't need to exist.

A final note: Newton's laws of motion were demonstrated in the documentary by the crew going to a firing range, hanging a machine gun from an awning by three strings, and firing it. At multiple points the presenter and camera operator had to step back to avoid a wildly swinging loaded gun. I will leave you with three consecutive stills from that endeavor:

✮ ✮ ✮

*In looking up that information, I was delighted to see the suggested question: "How many nukes would it take to destroy the moon?" According to the BBC: "To blow it up, you'll need to drill mine shafts hundreds of kilometres deep, all over the Moon, and drop a total of 600 billion of the largest nuclear bombs ever built down them."

**It feels ill-advised and vaguely unethical to use the Russian military as a source, but for my needs, the footage of the Almaz itself (both inside and out) proved invaluable. How cramped was the cockpit? What did the viewfinder look like? Where did they sleep? What type of images did the huge telescope spy camera produce? A well researched play begets a playwright who can talk to you about that research for an unwelcomely long period of time.


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