Why Cosmonauts Used To Take Guns Into Space

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Rosie McCall 08 Sep 2020, 15:15

The US Space Force has faced quite a few battles since it was first brought into existence with an executive order in 2018, and zero of these battles have been in space. However, strategic control of space, or at least its potential assets, is clearly a priority for the current administration.

Although no comprehensive treaty about space weapons exists, the potential militarization of space led several nations to propose a total ban on space weapons in the early 2000s, with China and Russia drafting a treaty to do as much (the Bush Jr-led US refused to enter negotiations), and the United Nations Outer Space Treaty (1967) rules against placing nuclear missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Earth orbit. However, it hasn't stopped people from taking weapons into space in the present or in the past. 

Most are minor-league. Think: Victorinox Swiss Army knives, which NASA astronauts have been carrying aboard the International Space Station (ISS) since the 1970s. Others are a little more hardcore. For years, cosmonauts packed actual guns alongside food rations and water bottles in their emergency supply kit.

And not just any gun. They carried the TP-82: a Soviet machete gun developed especially for the Russian Soyuz program. It has not one but three barrels. One for cartridges, one for shotgun shells, and a third for flares, as well as a folding stock that also serves as a shovel and a swing-out machete. During the flight, the gun was kept in a metal canister – and provided everything went to plan, that canister remained unopened. The gun was eventually presented to the spacecraft commander as a gift.

The three-barreled TP-82 cosmonaut survival pistol displayed in the St Petersburg Artillery Museum, showing bullets, flares and a fold-out machete. One Hal3544/Public Domain

The TP-82 was carried on all Russian space missions from 1982 to 2006 and was even brought aboard the ISS, stashed in the Soyuz Portable Emergency-Survival Kit (more on that later). Around this time, NASA astronauts also learned to handle the gun at a Black Sea training facility. But in the mid-2000s, it was retired and replaced with the more compact Makarov 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a favorite of the Russian special forces.

More recently, however, it seems cosmonauts have ditched the gun, reports James Oberg, an American space journalist and an expert on Russian and Chinese space programs. While it might still be officially included on the list of kit contents, before each space flight cosmonauts meet and vote to remove it before takeoff. 

So, how – and why – did the Russians end up carrying guns into space?

It all starts with the Soyuz Portable Emergency-Survival Kit. The kit was not just an excuse to store guns. They were equipped with warm clothing, rope, and other provisions that might come in handy if your capsule lands far off course and you are forced to fend for yourself in the wilderness for a day or two. While it is extremely unlikely that this will happen to space travelers today, the story goes that Alexei Leonov, an early cosmonaut and the very first spacewalker, was instrumental in its conception. Leonov had spent two days and a night stranded in a remote and bear-riddled section of the Ural Mountains following an onboard computer malfunction that caused his shuttle to land 965 kilometers (600 miles) off course.

So, space travelers were not armed in preparation for intergalactic battles. At least, not according to the official record. Rather, they were given weapons to protect themselves post-missions in case they find themselves in hostile or enemy terrain upon landing. 

Still – hypothetically – if a bullet was to be fired in space, what would happen?

According to Peter Schultz, an astronomer at Brown University, the first thing that changes in space is the shape of the smoke trail when you pull the trigger. It "would be an expanding sphere of smoke from the tip of the barrel," Schultz told Live Science. If the bullet is shot in open space (and not, for example, in a space shuttle), it will keep on traveling forever, astronomer Matija Cuk told them. This is because the universe is expanding at a faster rate than the bullet is moving. 

Theoretically, it is also possible to shoot yourself in the back.

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