For decades, every Soyuz rocket crew packed a sidearm in their emergency kits—even after joining the International Space Station partnership. This "survival gun," the TOZ 82, had three barrels and a swing-out machete. But nowadays, the guns stay at home.

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Of course, the "official" purpose of the gun—which could fire rifle bullets, shotgun shells and flares—was for survival in a harsh environment, such as the Siberian wilderness, in the event of an off-course landing. (It also had a folding shovel.) But according to journalist James Oberg, one of the leading U.S. experts on the Russian space program: "Fiendishly, I proposed that to guarantee the gun only be usable in an off-course landing, it be stashed in compartment accessible only from outside the Soyuz, after landing. There never was any response to my helpful suggestions."

NASA astronauts had an opportunity to try out the TOZ 82 during survival training with their Russian counterparts in the Black Sea. After floating around in the water for a day or two, the astronauts and cosmonauts would take a few hours to fire several rounds from each chamber off the deck of the training ship.

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"It was amazing how many wine, beer and vodka bottles the crew of the ship could come up with for us to shoot at," astronaut Jim Voss, who spent a stint aboard the international space station in 2001, told Oberg. "It was very accurate," he continued. "We threw the bottles as far as possible, probably 20 or 30 meters, then shot them. It was trivial to hit the bottles with the shotgun shells, and relatively easy to hit them with the rifle bullets on the first shot."

Oberg was never a fan of a lethal firearm being aboard a space station, and he frequently called attention to the issue in press conferences and meetings with Russian officials. He now wonders if he actually had an impact:

Of course, plans were to use it only in special circumstances on return to Earth. But in space, on occasion, well-laid plans have a way of turning out very differently. In my publicity campaign, I suggested the presence of the gun, especially in light of recent space team psychological problems, might be an invitation to a future disaster.

But something did happen—or rather, stopped happening. Last year I was told by a NASA press official—not for attribution, of course—that the gun had been removed from the standard survival kits and I should ask the Russian Space Agency for confirmation. As usual, the Russian Space Agency never responded to my queries.

So I asked the cosmonauts. During a press conference last summer in Houston, the team for the Soyuz launch in October was made available for one-on-one interviews with journalists, and I always attend. There were so many entrancing mission-specific technical questions that I ran out of time without getting to my 3x5 card marked "GUN??" They were whisked out of the conference room.

All was not lost. I rushed outside, as the two cosmonauts stood with their interpreter before walking back to the astronaut office. "One more question, please," I pleaded, in Russian. "The pistol in the emergency kit, do you still carry it?"

They had enjoyed my earlier questions and so seemed generously disposed towards me, and smiled. "Ransheh," answered the commander, amused. "Earlier"—adding that the old practice had been suspended a few years before, after his own first mission. As to why, he merely shrugged his shoulders and grinned.

Oberg recently learned that the official policy is to still include the gun on the inventory list—but before every mission, there's a vote to remove it for that specific flight. So, the option remains to carry a gun aboard the ISS. Let's just hope U.S.-Russian relations don't deteriorate any further.