On the eve of the last space shuttle launch, here’s a little piece from last year on the Russian shuttle clone that might have outlived the American shuttle — if the USSR hadn’t collapsed.
The launch of an Atlas rocket last April at Cape Canaveral looked like any other satellite launch at NASA. But the payload was anything but ordinary: a secret unmanned space plane called the X-37B. Essentially a mini space shuttle that hung out in orbit for a few months, spending lots of time over Afghanistan, it was billed as a pioneer of unmanned space flight, and perhaps a big step towards space weaponization.
But it’s not the first unmanned space plane. As with a few other space milestones, the Soviet Union beat the US to the punch back in 1988. And the Russians did it with what was essentially a knock-off of the Space Shuttle. As if the embarrassing symbolism weren’t strong enough, there was also the fact of the Buran’s eventual intended purpose: to attack the U.S. from space.
Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA’s space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union’s dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.
A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and – the reported reason for its inception – to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.
The shuttle even had its own transport aircraft. The Antonov An-225 was designed specifically to carry the Buran shuttles between landing and launch sites, much like the NASA shuttles and their custom 747 transport. The An-225 remains the longest aircraft in the world.
On November 15, 1988, Buran launched from the Baïkonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard an Energia rocket, and made a successful orbital flight, circling the Earth twice. Because the lift support system had not been fully inspected, the flight was unmanned.
Besides its built-in robotic flight controls, the Buran had other notable differences from the US’s space transportation system:
- Lacking main rocket engines, the Buran was lighter and offered more room than the shuttle
- Buran’s launcher, Energia, was designed to carry up to 80 metric tons into orbit on its own
- Energa was also being designed to carry payloads to the moon without Buran
- Buran could lift 30 metric tons of payload into orbit, vs. the shuttle’s 25 metric tons
- Buran’s thermodynamic tiles, protecting it from re-entry burn-up, were thought to be superior to the shuttle’s
Most remarkably, the Buran was able to fly and land itself, a feature that the United States is only now exploring.
While Buran landed intact, the shuttle suffered such significant heat damage during reentry that it was deemed too costly to repair. In 1989, it was projected that Buran would have a second unmanned flight in 1993, with a duration of 15–20 days. But the craft never flew again, and after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian shuttle program was quietly shuttered in 1993.
In addition to the orbiter that flew in space, the Soviets had completed or were building four other orbiting models and six test versions. Some were kept at Baïkonour, while others were placed on exhibition or turned to scraps. One turned up in the Kingdom of Bahrain in 2004, before being purchased by a German museum. One, left outside Moscow’s Tushkino factory, was ripped apart by collectors; another ended up in a parking lot.
When Space Shuttle Columbia burned up during reentry in 2003, casting doubt over the future of NASA’s space shuttle, some speculated that a renovation of a Russian shuttle could become a cheaper replacement. But the idea, described in this video piece waned. (Lessons from the re-entry damage of the Buran have been applied to research into shuttle safety at NASA.)
Thus Buran, perhaps the most expensive and complicated space program in Soviet history, ended up an expensive failure. A renewed space race put significant strain on the USSR’s already fragile economy. Within a year, the empire would crumble. In some ways, the Buran wasn’t just a symbol for the Soviet Union’s collapse, but one of the catalysts for it too.
After the program was canceled, all the Buran shuttles and mock-ups, with one exception, were sold off to become amusement park rides and hot dog stands. The remaining vehicle was kept at the Cosmodrome. In 2002, a catastrophic roof collapse at the plane’s hanger killed eight workers and destroyed the remaining Buran as well as a mock-up of one of its Energia rockets.
Of course for now, Russia may get the last laugh: while officials and lawmakers debate the future of NASA’s manned space program, NASA will be paying upwards of $10 million per ride to the Space Station aboard tiny capsules hitched to older Soyuz rockets.
If things had turned out differently, they might have been flying in space shuttle clones.