Buran – the Soviet Space Shuttle
How the Soviet Union tried and failed to match NASA’s iconic spacecraft.
From 1981 to 2011 NASA’s Space Shuttle truly was the master of flight into low earth orbit. As a reusable spacecraft capable of lifting 30 tons, the Space Shuttle was crucial in the launching of satellites and equipment such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station.
The Soviet Union – America’s great rival during the Space Race – could only look on enviously and it wasn’t long before their space agency would begin their longest and most expensive program in Soviet space history: the creation of their own reusable spacecraft, Buran.
But whatever happened to this Russian shuttle? Condemned to the sidelines of space history, this is the story of the Soviet Union’s doomed shuttle programme.
For some time both the Americans and Soviets had been planning the development of a reusable spacecraft to be used for missions to low-earth orbit. With these sorts of craft, spaceflights could become more regular and costs could be kept down.
In 1981, after years of testing, NASA launched Space Shuttle Columbia, the world’s first space shuttle flight. Capable of launching 30 tons of equipment into space and of being launched up to 50 times in a single year, the military capabilities of this new American shuttle were not lost on the Soviets. What could the Americans need with so many potential launches and so much cargo? There were fears amongst the Soviet military that the Shuttle could launch laser weaponry that could knock out nuclear missiles during flight, be used to construct a military base in space, or even be used to dive bomb Moscow from orbit. Matching the Americans’ capabilities was as critical as it had ever been.
Undeterred by their failed N1 Moon rocket, in 1974 the Soviet space agency began their own shuttle programme. There was an initial reluctance to design a spacecraft so similar to the American Space Shuttle, but after extensive wind tunnel tests, Soviet engineers couldn’t help but agree that the US design was ideal. Over the next few years they began to gather information about the Space Shuttle, using agents of the KGB (the Soviet secret service) to hack into the databases of American universities. In 1980, one year before the first flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle, the Soviets began to construct their own shuttle system which they named Buran, which loosely translates to “Snowstorm on the Steppes”.
At a glance, it’s clear just how similar Buran and the Space Shuttle really were. Like its American counterpart Buran was composed of a reusable spacecraft attached to the side of a huge rocket. The Buran shuttle had a forward crew cabin with six workstations and is almost the same length as the Space Shuttle with a payload bay (fitted with two robotic arms), wings, and fins identical in size and layout.
But one big difference was the way that these two shuttles were launched. Unlike the American Shuttle, the Buran shuttle wasn’t fitted with powerful heavy lifting boosters at its rear. Instead it relied entirely on the Energia rocket to get it into orbit. Energia was a heavy launch system in its own right, composed of a huge central four-stage rocket with four strap-on boosters attached to its sides. It could work independently to launch up to 100 tons into low-Earth orbit – a huge advantage over the American’s 30 ton limit. Because of this, the Buran was deemed just another payload for the Energia rocket.
The biggest difference, however (and another way in which the Soviets had the upper hand), was the capability of the Buran to be launched, flown, and landed completely remotely. In the early hours of 15 November 1988 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan this was finally put to the test with what would become the only flight of Buran.
After an aborted attempt due to a mechanical failure, tensions were high as Buran was manoeuvred into place for launch. This time however, the automated launch sequence worked as planned and the huge Energia rocket lifted Buran into orbit before separating from the shuttle. Buran then used its small boosters to lift itself into a higher orbit, completing two full orbits of the Earth before the automated landing system brought the spacecraft home.
After successful re-entry, Buran navigated itself towards the Baikonur runway, but as it lined itself up to land, it was buffeted by strong crosswinds. Luckily, the automated systems worked perfectly, aborting the landing attempt and bringing Buran around for a second try. It landed less than 10 metres from its designated target mark. The mission was a huge success and everything had worked exactly to plan with minimal wear-and-tear to the spacecraft.
The stage was now set for further missions, but Buran would never fly again. Born because of political turmoil, Buran’s death was for similar reasons. As the Soviet Union moved towards the millennium, President Gorbachev created many radical reforms as a way of restructuring the government and improving relations with other countries. This, alongside many other factors set the wheels in motion for the whole system to collapse.
As the Soviet Union collapsed so did its many departments and ministries. The Ministry of General Machine Building which built Buran was no more and the new Russian republic streamlined many departments to create the Russian Federal Space Agency in 1992. The new agency didn’t officially cancel the Buran program, but there was no provision to keep Buran or its Energia system in use and Buran would never leave Earth again.
Buran is a great example of how the politics of the Cold War caused the superpowers of America and the Soviet Union to constantly try and outperform each other technologically, but the legacy of the Soviet shuttle is a strange one. Mock ups of the spacecraft can be found on display in Moscow and at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, but four shuttles in different stages of completion were just left to rot in hangars (see video below), with the one that actually flew into space destroyed when its hangar collapsed in 2002.
Kept away from the public, the remaining Buran shuttles can only be seen those brave enough to sneak past the guards, which is not recommended.
About the author: Will Pattle is a member of the Education team at the National Space Centre.