The exhibit Hot Art in a Cold War is on display at the Bruce Museum until May 20, 2018. It is a show highlighting the art and science of the Soviet era and the sometimes surprising ways they intersected. There are a wide variety of science objects and works of art on display, but one of my favorites is the TP-82 Soviet pistol.
Real TP-82s are exceedingly rare and ours is a replica crafted in-house by exhibition preparator and artist extraordinaire Sean Murtha. However, it isn’t the rarity of this piece that makes it worthy of highlighting; it’s what the TP-82 was used for. This was the model of gun that the cosmonauts carried on their journeys into space and back to Earth again. It was in use for an astonishing 20 years, from 1986 – 2006, but few know its history, or even that it existed in the first place.
The Origin of the Soviet Space Gun
When cosmonauts went into space, they would bring along a survival kit, very similar to the air pilot kit we have on display at the Bruce. The survival kit contained everything a cosmonaut needed to survive should they land in the wilderness and have to fend for themselves. The exact contents of the kit might change from mission to mission and season to season, but the survival kits regularly had items such as matches, fuel, radios, canteens, fishing kits, signal mirrors, and medical kits.
The idea of a cosmonaut landing far afield and needing to rough it for a few days was a quite pressing concern at the time. When Soviet space capsules re-entered the atmosphere, tiny errors in calculations or performance could mean a landing site hundreds of kilometers from the intended location. This is exactly what happened in the Voskhod 2 mission.
Vokshod 2 was launched into space on March 18, 1965. It carried two cosmonauts, Alexey Leonov and Pavel Belyayev. Leonov would take his place in history during that mission as the first man to perform a spacewalk. Though he survived the feat, it was not without trouble. His space suit inflated in the vacuum of space and became so puffed and rigid that he couldn’t bend his joints enough to re-enter the air lock. Suffering from heat exhaustion and extreme stress, he vented some of the air in his suit into space, allowing himself to regain entry into the craft.
This already was a great act of courage and ingenuity, but he and his co-pilot would be tested again when they re-entered the atmosphere. A number of technical difficulties changed their trajectory, causing them to land 386 km off target in a desolate Siberian forest.
Their survival kits came in handy then. It was bear and wolf mating season, and though they thankfully didn’t encounter these fierce animals while waiting for rescue, they were quite aware of the risk. They endured one freezing night alone, another in the company of a rescue party, and then finally were able to ski to an open area where they were picked up by helicopter.
A pistol and ammunition was already included in their emergency supplies for the trip, but Leonov worried that it wouldn’t have been enough if a bear or wolf had attacked. In response to his concerns, Soviet scientists developed a very special gun that future cosmonauts could carry on their missions. This gun was the TP-82.
The strange features of the TP-82 were designed with the needs of cosmonauts in mind. Each gun had three barrels. The top two fired 12.5 x 70 mm ammunition while the lower held 5.45 x 39 mm ammo. It could shoot shotgun shells, rifle bullets, and flares. A downed cosmonaut could now defend themselves against a bear and signal for help with the same weapon. If you ran out of bullets, the TP-82 had one last option for you. The detachable buttstock of the gun was a machete that a cosmonaut could use to hack their way through underbrush or swing at a charging animal.
So why did the Russians stop bringing the versatile TP-82 on their space missions? It wasn’t due to a change of heart on the wisdom of bringing a firearm into the cramped quarters and often stressful atmosphere of a spacecraft. Rather, the factory that was making the TP-82 discontinued its production. As the ammunition for the TP-82 began to near the end of its shelf-life, it became evident that the days of the triple-barreled space gun were over. The last TP-82 guns were pulled from survival kits and a standard Russian army pistol took their place. The Russians still would carry guns into space, but without the stylish flare of the TP-82.
It was only a little more than a decade ago in 2006 that the TP-82s fell out of use, but what of today? Do cosmonauts on the International Space Station still pack firearms in case of wolf attack upon landing?
The Russian Space Agency is much more open than their Soviet counterparts were, but they still generally decline to comment on the question of guns in space. Recent interviews with cosmonauts and other people involved in the Russian space industry suggest that they no longer send guns on space missions, but this remains a rumor for now. Given that cosmonaut training has shifted to civilian jurisdiction rather than military in recent years, perhaps cosmonauts are starting to depart from their previous militaristic habits.
However, there is no evidence that a cosmonaut ever actually had to use the TP-82 to fend off wild animal attack, so perhaps the gun was unnecessary to begin with. Now that cosmonauts are presumably unarmed, hopefully Russian wildlife will continue to be cooperative should they find a space pilot after an offsite landing.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow