Today, the Cold War is remembered for bringing the world to the brink of global war, often personified by an apocalyptic nuclear exchange or a massive conventional war over West Germany. Though NATO and Soviet forces maintained a readiness to fight on land, sea and air throughout the Cold War, it is largely unknown that both sides considered taking the conflict into space.
The use of spy satellites is well-known, and there were certain aircraft developed to attack satellites such as the MiG-31D “Foxhound” variant. However, the Soviets also looked into a craft that could fight in space the way regular aircraft could dogfight in atmosphere. That aircraft was the MiG-105, nicknamed “Lapot” or “wooden shoe” in Russian based on the fighter’s design.
The MiG-105, also known as the Experimental Passenger Orbital Aircraft (or OPES in Russian) was part of the Spiral program, which aimed to design a manned test vehicle which could explore low-speed handling and landing. For safety, the MiG-105’s pilot sat in a completely insulated escape capsule, which could be ejected from the spaceplane in an emergency. Aside from being able to take off from a runway, the MiG-105 could also be dropped from a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber.
Development on the MiG-105 began in 1965 in response to the U.S. Air Force’s X-20 Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which was designed from 1957 to 1963 as a spy plane, bomber and space rescuer as well as being capable of performing duties related to satellite maintenance or satellite sabotage. Although the Dyna-Soar could fly at the speeds of an ICBM and reach Earth orbit, the spaceplane could also be glided to Earth like an aircraft and land on a runway.
Even though development on the Dyna-Soar was cancelled before development on the MiG-105 even began, the Soviets continued on until the Spiral project was cancelled on June 30, 1969. The project was briefly revived on June 30, 1974, when more serious testing of the MiG-105 began. The first test flight was on Oct. 11, 1976, where the space plane took off from a dirt airstrip outside Moscow and landed at Zhukovskii Flight Center.
Overall, the MiG-105 would have eight test flights sporadically until 1978, with the last test flight taking place in September when the spaceplane was forced to make a hard landing which resulted in the craft being written off.
So far, only three cosmonauts are definitely known to have served as test pilots with the MiG-105, including Gherman Titov, Vasily Lazarev and Aviard G. Fastovets. Titov, the second man in space and known for his flight on Vostok 2, was the main pilot.
Part of what led to the MiG-105’s revival in 1974 after it was cancelled was Soviet concerns over NASA’s Space Shuttle program, which provided the first spacecraft which was not only reusable but could carry large amounts of cargo into space, such as satellites or modules of space stations. However, the Soviet leadership was more concerned the Space Shuttle could really be used as a bomber or a way for weapons to be placed in orbit over the U.S.S.R.
Ironically, the reason the MiG-105 project was ultimately cancelled forever was the decision to instead focus on the Buran program, the Soviets’ answer to the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately Buran only made one unmanned (though successful) flight before the project was cancelled in 1993 due to a lack of funds and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Buran, also known as the OK-1K1, was stored in a hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan until the roof collapsed and destroyed it in 2002.
The MiG-105 test vehicle itself remains at the Monino Air Force Museum in the Russian Federation. Though the MiG-105 never reached space, both it and its rival the X-20 Dyna-Soar provide an example of what could have happened had the Cold War’s proxy conflicts extended into space. But unlike Buran which is now considered to have been superior to the American Space Shuttles, there is no way to determine what a conflict in space would have been like or how the MiG-105 would have actually performed in the first space dogfight.