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The Soviet Buran Shuttle: One Flight, Long History

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This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the sole launch of the Soviet space shuttle Buran. The idea of a reusable space plane has existed for decades among space enthusiasts and predated the idea of a rocket carrying humans into Earth orbit. The space race era manager of the Soviet Space program Sergei Korolev studied a possible configuration for one during his student days in the 1930s. World War II and the German’s successful design of the V-2 distracted both Soviet and American engineers from the space plane concept for a while.

Commemorative Medal

A commemorative medal of the Soviet Buran shuttle in the Museum’s collection.

Official Soviet interest in a reusable space plane revived in the 1950s. For 30 years several programs overlapped. Designers and managers believed that such a craft ultimately would provide more reliable and efficient access to space than single-use rockets. Their first effort, known as the Burya, was developed by engineers in at the Mikoyan Gurevich aircraft design plant. Also known as the MiG-105, the craft employed a ramjet engine that required an assisted launch to gain orbit. After the dawn of the space age, Soviet rocket designers and cosmonauts continued work on a space plane then called Spiral, during the 1960s. Among test pilots was the second man in to orbit the Earth, German Titov, who left his career as a cosmonaut to become a test pilot for the program.

At the time of the early US space shuttle launches, the soviet Ministry of Defense took a renewed interest in the project and began testing an unpiloted scale model of the Buran, called the Bor. This was a series of 1:3 and 1:2 scale models of the planned spacecraft.  Although the program had been secret, Australian fishermen caught sight of a Soviet ship pulling a small scale model form the ocean. These reports began speculation that the Soviet Union was trying to build a shuttle to match the U.S. one. Amid much international speculation and after many delays, the Soviet Union launched the Buran (Snowstorm), its first full-scale reusable space shuttle, on November 15, 1988. Although they tested the Buran extensively in the Earth’s atmosphere with trained pilots, the maiden, and only, orbital launch was made without a crew. The Buran launched strapped onto the Energia launch vehicle, the largest among Soviet launch vehicles. It resembled the American shuttle quite closely — not by coincidence.  Through espionage, the Soviets obtained the design specifications of the US shuttle.

Models

A model of the Buran and its launch vehicle, the Energia, which Russian President Boris Yeltsin donated to the Museum.

Buran’s launch occurred during a critical time in Soviet history. The country was struggling to recover from the grim legacy of two decades of the Brezhnev regime, which placed international prestige and military expenditures ahead of the comfort of its citizens. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika called for a tighter accounting of state expenditures. His policy of glasnost, or openness, allowed for public debate of policies. This allowed for more open and vocal objections in the public arena. The response to the Buran program from within the Soviet aerospace community was immediately and resoundingly negative. Engineers, such as Konstantin Feoktistov, who had designed the Vostok spacecraft, wrote Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a 19-page critique of the program. In his letter, he pointed out that the expense for the reusable shuttle would sap the budget for existing programs. Planetary scientist, Roald Sagdeev, who had led the Soviet’s vigorous exploration of Venus, too, expressed his disapproval of the program as one that would undercut Soviet expenditures in the space sciences. No flight occurred after Buran’s maiden voyage.

After several incomplete design projects during the 1970s, the Soviets revived the effort in the 1980s to build the Buran. Only two more flight-ready spacecraft began manufacture, though none were complete.  The Soviets began construction of two others but they never completed construction of the airframe. The government officially canceled the program after the dissolution of the USSR.

Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia, presented models of the Soviet Buran spacecraft and Energia launch vehicle to the Smithsonian Institution in June 1992 during a summit in Washington DC with American President George H. W. Bush. These models commemorate the first launches of the Energia launch vehicle in May 1987 and the Buran shuttle in November 1988.

In May 2002, the Soviet Buran came back into the news. The hangar that housed the last remaining full-scale test model of the Buran at the Russian Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazahstan collapsed. The building had originally been constructed as the vehicle assembly building for both the Buran and the Soviet heavy lift launch vehicle, Energia. Eight people lost their lives in the building collapse.

Space journalist Robert Pearlman stands in from of the Soviet Buran shuttle in its assembly building just two weeks before the building collapsed. Courtesy Robert Pearlman, Collectspace.com.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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