Here in the United States, there’s a certain image of the Astronaut’s journey we’ve grown accustomed to: a dramatic launch, a majestic weightless experience, turbulent reentry, and finally, a splashdown somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. From there, America’s Navy swoops in, picking up the floating Astronauts and their capsules (barring an embarrassing incident like Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7) and ensuring America’s space adventurers receive immediate medical screenings and a (moderately) soft Navy issue rack to get some gravity assisted sleep.
In the early days of America’s space program, an astronaut’s return to earth was a celebrated event but in the Soviet Union, returning cosmonauts didn’t have ticker tape parades on their mind as their capsules careened through the atmosphere with a heading set for home. Unlike the United States, the Soviet (and Russian) space programs have their returning Soyuz capsules touchdown on land, rather than in the ocean. There were no carrier groups awaiting Cosmonaut landings, there were search and rescue parties — as their capsules came down in one of the most unforgiving environments on the planet: Siberia.
Soviet Cosmonauts were already carrying 9mm pistols in their “survival kits” well prior to 1965, but an incident that saw cosmonaut Alexy Leonov stranded in the Siberian wilderness after his return to earth prompted the development of a new, specialized weapon purpose built for compact Siberian survival in the event another space explorer found himself living the life of a wilderness explorer immediately upon his return from space.
Leonov had just completed the first successful (though there were some complications) space walk in history, but a malfunction in their reentry systems sent Pavel Belyayev and Leonov far off course, landing in the middle of the Siberian wilderness amid a freezing snowstorm — and worse, smack in the middle of bear and wolf territory during the wolves (highly aggressive) mating season. After the heaters failed on the capsule, the two cosmonauts had to take it upon themselves to ski to an extraction point. It didn’t take long for Leonov to realize that his 9mm would do little to protect the two from a bear or wolf attack, and thus, the TP-82 was born.
The TP-82 was no compact pistol, but it was designed to offer the most survival bang for the launch-weight buck. Its three barrel design allowed it to fire rifle cartridges (5.45x39mm), shotgun shells (12.5×70), and flares and its removable butt stock could also function as a machete. The TP-82 may have been meant to aid in survival once cosmonauts returned to earth, but that challenge inadvertently produced an awfully science fiction sounding firearm — not too different from the guns featured in space videos games of today.
And lest you consider the TP-82 as just another relic of the zany Soviet era, the custom made firearm remained in service as the cosmonaut sidearm until 2006, even making the trip to the International Space Station along with Russian cosmonauts working alongside their American counterparts. Although there have been treaties established in the intervening years barring weapons from space, but Russia’s sidearms have been grandfathered into these rules, perhaps because Americans now accompany them in their Soyuz capsules, and don’t want to find their landing party without any means of defense upon return either. Today, cosmonauts carry a semi-automatic pistol once again, thanks in large part to the Russian government running out of stockpiled specialized ammunition for their purpose-built space gun.
Images courtesy of YouTube