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When cosmonauts still flew into space with weapons

Not so long ago, Soviet cosmonauts went to various space stations armed with a three-barreled gun. The goal ? Ability to defend against attacks. Not in space, but in the event of a failed landing.

In the 1960s, the potential militarization of space led several countries to draft and sign the United Nations Outer Space Treaty (1967). This document made it possible to lay the legal foundations for space exploration, in particular prohibiting the placing of nuclear missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Earth orbit. However, that hasn't stopped some cosmonauts from carrying handguns into space.

During the time of Yuri Gagarin, cosmonauts flew into space armed with a Makarov pistol (PM), like Russian policemen. The weapon was to be used in the event of an unplanned landing, to protect "against wild animals and criminal elements". But was that enough? The experience of Alexei Leonov and Pavel Beliaev, suffered in 1965, suggested not.

Under threat from bears

Leonov and Beliaev are not just anyone. Both were indeed chosen to participate in the Voskhod 2 mission, the objective of which was to carry out the very first extravehicular outing in space. And by the way, to give a second "slap" to the United States, after the first inflicted by Gagarin. The big day will take place on March 18, 1965. But not everything went as planned.

After a nightmarish mission (reported here), the cosmonauts indeed landed 386 kilometers from the planned site, in the middle of the Siberian forest.

The peculiarities of the terrain prevented the rescuers from quickly reaching the two men, so they had to spend two nights there, under the threat of bears just out of their hibernation. Against such predators, a Makarov pistol was only a meager bulwark. “The only thing we could do with that gun was shoot ourselves in the head” , Leonov once explained.

A three-barreled weapon

Once repatriated, the latter then proposed to create a special weapon allowing them to really survive in the event of an emergency landing. Vladimir Paramonov, chief builder of the Tulsky Oruzheiny Zavod arms factory, then developed the TP-82. This gun offered not one, but three barrels. One for 5.45mm rifle bullets, a second for 32mm shotgun shells, and the last for signal rounds.

In addition, its folding butt, which could double as a shovel, also contained a swinging machete.

The TP-82 will then have entered all Russian space missions from 1982 to 2006, maintained in the portable emergency survival kit of the Soyuz capsules. At that time, NASA astronauts also learned to use the weapon in training camps scheduled in the middle of the Black Sea. Astronaut Dave Wolf, who spent four months aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1997-98, recalls a gun that was "well-balanced, very accurate and convenient to use" .

In the mid-2000s, the TP-82 was eventually retired and replaced by the more compact Makarov 9mm semi-automatic pistol used by Russian special forces. Nevertheless, it would seem that cosmonauts have abandoned these weapons for a few years, reports James Oberg, an expert on Russian and Chinese space programs.

In summary, in 2013, a NASA official assured him that the weapon had been removed from standard survival kits. The Russian Space Agency remaining silent on the subject, he decided to directly question two cosmonauts at the end of a press conference held in the summer of 2014.

"One more question, please", he asked them in Russian.“The pistol in the emergency kit, are you still carrying it?” .

One ​​of the two cosmonauts, with an amused look, then made him understand that the weapon had not been available for a few years. As to why, he simply shrugged and smiled. But was that really the case?

Always on the list

Two months later, James Oberg interviewed Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who was to join the next crew. She then told him an anecdote. During his final oral exams in Moscow, he was asked to list the contents of the Soyuz capsule emergency landing survival kit. The astronaut had then written them on the board in front of the review committee, taking care to explain the use of each element.

“Then , she explained to him to show that I knew even more, I added that a gun had been on this list before but had recently been removed” .

It was then that the chairman of the board corrected her. “No, the gun is still on the kit contents list” , she remembers having heard. “But before each mission, we meet to review this list and vote to remove it before each flight” .

Thus, it would seem that there has indeed been no weapon on board the ISS for several years. On the other hand, theoretically, Russian cosmonauts could still integrate them into their survival kit.