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The Buran – The Soviet Union’s Space Shuttle

This is a story about space travel, Cold War espionage and a Soviet shuttle that looked remarkably similar to what NASA produced. Maybe it was just an extraordinary coincidence – and maybe the Soviet Union was a deeply misunderstood socialist state that cared profoundly about its people and didn’t cause millions of deaths over its 69-year history. We’re not going to tell you what to believe, but this tale has a lot more to it than meets the eye.      

The Soviet Buran spacecraft, the only reusable spacecraft to appear out of the Soviet Union, looked about as identical to the NASA Space Shuttle as you could possibly get. They both shared the same kind of design, both were black and white and both shared roughly the same kind of mission profile – getting things into space and bringing them down again. Put them side by side, and you would see minor differences, but in a blind tasting – or a blind shuttle picking game if you will – surely only the most eagled would be able to tell one from the other. 

So was the Buran spacecraft one giant Soviet rip-off? Well, what kind of Megaproject video would this be if we didn’t leave you on tender-hooks for at least the time being. You may already have a stance on this subject if you know the background but this may well be coloured by political and national ideology. The Buran, which means snowstorm or blizzard in Russian, arrived just as the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel and came with plenty of propaganda trumpeted from both sides. So how unique and good was this Soviet Space Shuttle? Let’s take a look. 

The Declining USSR

USSR

If the collapse of the Soviet Union isn’t your particular forte, luckily for you we’ve recently done a video on the lead up to and dissolution of the USSR, so if this video spikes your interest, why not check out that video after. 

But in a nutshell, the Soviet Union’s attempts at keeping up with the U.S between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s caused the USSR all sorts of problems. While the nuclear weapons program and space program received bountiful budgets, the standard of living across the state stagnated then began to decline. In the hopelessly out of touch words of Marie Antoinette – ‘let them eat cake’ – or as would probably have been the case in the Soviet Union, ‘let them eat Black Sea caviar’.

While lines for basic commodities began growing in the Soviet Union, its leaders knew they had to keep up with the Jones’ – or at least appear to be able to match the U.S in whatever they were doing. The problem was the U.S economy was thundering and had grown to twice that of their superpower rivals. The Americans were throwing money around like there was no tomorrow, but at least they could afford to.     

The Space Race

“Space Race” by various author is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In 1981 the Space Race went up a gear with the appearance of NASA’s Space Shuttle – another topic we’ve already covered here on Megaprojects in case you’re interested. On 12th April 1981, the world watched as the Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off from the Kennedy Launch Center to become the first reusable spacecraft into space.   

While this was certainly a historic occasion, I’m willing to bet Soviet authorities didn’t quite share in the momentous milestone. In truth, the Soviet Space Program had been slipping further and further behind the Americans since – well since the heady days of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. 

When information regarding the American Space Shuttle Program reached Soviet leaders, either through the media or KGB activities, it was met with irritation and plenty of suspicions. What exactly were the Americans going to do with a reusable spacecraft that could carry 30 tons of equipment up into space at a rate of 50 times a year? I know the Space Shuttles never got anywhere near that kind of frequency, but that was the original plan, or at least what the paranoia parrots in Moscow were telling everyone.   

With social problems ballooning across the Soviet Union, its leaders thought it best to feed their citizens before amping up the Space Race to levels they had little hope of maintaining. Just kidding. Screw the people – the USSR implemented the most extensive and expensive project in the history of Soviet space exploration, which became the Buran Program.  

Development 

Let’s begin with what Soviet authorities envisioned with the Buran Program. As I just mentioned, this was started as a way of keeping up with the Americans and their Space Shuttles, which the USSR were sure would sooner or later be used to carry nuclear weapons up into space then destroy the USSR from above. Just to be clear, as far as we know, NASA’s Space Shuttles were never designed to carry weapons and never did, but the Soviet Union was nothing if not a paranoid, insecure child thoroughly convinced that Uncle Sam was, at all times, out to get him. 

With that in mind, while the Buran Program was vaguely disguised as a civilian vehicle, its distant goals were almost certainly military. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, later told New Scientist magazine, 

We had no civilian tasks for Buran and the military ones were no longer needed. It was originally designed as a military system for weapon delivery, maybe even nuclear weapons. 

Development of the Buran Program began in the 1970s – in parallel, or rather just slightly behind the U.S Space Shuttle. This was a rocky time in the Soviet Union and it’s fair to say that not everybody thought the massive outlay of money was what was best for the USSR. But it appeared as if hardline military hotheads managed to convince Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that once the U.S shuttles were finished, it was only a matter of time before they began attacking Moscow. In February 1976, a secretive decree was signed and the Buran Program, along with Energia Rockets that would carry them up, formally came into being. 

Construction       

This brings us to the remarkably similar design that the Buran Spacecraft shared with its Yankee rival. Did the KGB perform one of the 20th Century’s greatest rip-offs? Well, yes and no. As I’ll come to later in the video, there are certainly enough differences between the Buran and Space Shuttle – but most of these are inside. So what about the outer design? 

The Soviet Union almost certainly had detailed plans of how the Space Shuttle was being designed – I mean, this was the Cold War after all – but where they certainly had a leg up was by essentially hacking into internal databases at universities and facilities across the U.S which were researching potential Space Shuttle designs. These included Caltech, MIT, Brooklyn Poly, Princeton, Stanford, Kansas, Penn State and Ohio State. 

The Soviet Military-Industrial Commission (VPK) basically harvested all of the background work that the Americans had done in the build-up to their final Space Shuttle design – case closed I hear you cry. However, between 1974 and 1980, these ideas were poured over by Soviet scientists and engineers who began running their own tests and after extensive wind tunnel testing, they found that the Americans had indeed designed the optimal shape for a reusable space vehicle. The word is that the lead engineers loathed the idea of building the Buran with the same kind of design as the Space Shuttle, but they had little choice. Either you went with the same outer design, or build something inferior. 

Construction officially began on the Buran prototype in 1980 and four years later, the first Soviet Space Shuttle finally appeared. 

The Buran 

So as we’ve already established, the Buran shares plenty of external characteristics with the American Space Shuttle, but certainly has plenty of uniqueness to make it its own spacecraft. At 36.37 m (119.3 ft) in length, it was 20 metres (65 ft) shorter than the Space Shuttle. Both shared a delta-winged design, but the Buran was again smaller than the Shuttle with a wingspan of 23.92 m (78.5 ft), just over 10 metres (32 ft) less than NASA’s vehicle. 

In terms of weight, the Space Shuttle was significantly heavier at 82.5 tons, compared to the Buran’s 62 tons. Now, that’s a noticeable amount which brings us nicely to one of the major differences between the two reusable spacecraft. While the Space Shuttle’s three engines were located within the Shuttle itself, the Buran’s four engines could be found on a separate rocket stage – the Energia rocket, which the Buran would straddle during takeoff. This section wasn’t reusable which meant that the Energia rocket would detach after takeoff, but included its own guidance, navigation, and control system. 

While the Space Shuttle used two boosters with solid propellant, the Energia Rocket had four liquid-propellant boosters and this one area where the Soviet vehicle was generally considered superior. The Energia Rocket didn’t have the same kind of segments and O-rings that caused the Challenger disaster, nor did it use foam, which was partly responsible for the Columbia disaster. Now, since the Buran Program didn’t get very far, it’s impossible to say for sure that it wouldn’t have had its own issues, but those are the facts we have.   

The exterior of the Buran came with 38,600 heat-shielding tiles designed to withstand 100 reentries, similar to what was included on the Shuttle. Inside, the cabin consisted of three decks. The Command Module located on the upper deck housed the workspace for the crew and served to accommodate the commander, pilot, engineer and mission specialist’s seats. Below that, the mid-deck had the life support, auxiliary equipment and enough room to seat six crew members during launch and reentry. Finally, the lower deck was where the power systems were located. 

The Buran had a spherical compartment docking system with a diameter of 2.67 metres (8.8 ft) and a cylindrical tunnel leading to the androgynous peripheral docking unit – similar to that on the Shuttle but could be extended further than the American version. Both the Buran and the Shuttles used hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity and burned hydrazine to power onboard hydraulic systems. 

Another key difference between the two, and one which gave the Buran a definite edge, was that it was designed for both piloted and fully autonomous flight, whereas the Shuttle needed to be piloted at all times. The Space Shuttle was later fitted with automated landing capability, but this came long after the Buran had faded into obscurity. 

So, yes, these two reusable spacecraft look curiously alike from the outside, but they had so many differences it’s impossible to simply call the Buran a NASA rip-off. 

The First (and only) Flight

In retrospect, we know that the Buran only flew into space once, but at the time certainly, everybody involved must have thought it was to be the first of many. Between November 1985 and April 1988, a full-scale Buran mockup with four turbofan engines took part in no less than 24 atmospheric flights as testing progressed. 

As far as we can tell, things went relatively smoothly and as the end of 1988 neared, the Soviets readied themselves for the Buran’s maiden flight into space. This would be an unmanned flight departing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in what is present-day Kazakhstan. 

On 15th December 1988, after an aborted takeoff due to a mechanical failure, the engines on the Energia Rocket roared into life. If there had been issues in the build-up, the flight itself went entirely as planned, with the mighty rocket detaching shortly after lift-off before the Buran orbited the Earth twice, travelling 83,707 kilometres (52,013 mi) in 3 hours and 25 minutes. 

After successfully reentering the atmosphere, the Buran came in for its first landing, as heavy cross-winds began battering the spacecraft. No doubt those on the ground held their breath as the virgin spacecraft faced its first major challenge. But again, it performed exactly as it had been designed to. The automated system onboard calculated the risk and quickly aborted the landing before bringing the Buran around for a second attempt, which saw the spacecraft touchdown just 10 metres (32 ft) from its designated target landing spot. It became the first spacecraft to perform an unmanned flight that included a landing in fully automatic mode. 

The Age of the Buran

The Buran’s first flight had been a huge success and further flights were soon planned. The Ptichka 1.02 mission was slated for sometime in 1991, with a second also in the same year. The first manned flight was scheduled for 1994, with a further four planned across 1994 and 1995. It appeared the stage was set for the Age of the Buran to commence – but as we now know, momentous change was afoot. 

With the Soviet Union imploding, it seems the last thing on anybody’s mind was a costly space program and sadly, the Buran never flew again. While the program was only officially suspended, to begin with, the economic downturn which followed the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991 was a hammer blow and in 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin formally cancelled the Buran Program. The enormous project spanned just shy of 20 years had cost the Soviet Union around 20 billion roubles – which worked out around $34 billion back then and roughly $76 billion today – which makes that single flight not only the most expensive of all time, it would be difficult to ever see that figure eclipsed again.

Things got even worse for the Buran when in 2003, the roof of the hanger it was housed in at the Baikonur Cosmodrome collapsed, killing 8 people inside and destroying the very Buran that had once left our planet. The tale of the ill-fated, and ill-timed, spacecraft built to compete with the Space Shuttle had finally come to its tragic end. 

Rip-off or Superior Spacecraft?  

Compared to the stellar – well mostly anyway – career of the U.S Space Shuttles, the Buran had a most inauspicious life and sad death. Its legacy is complex. Some vehemently label it a flagrant rip-off and there is certainly plenty to back up that claim – but we need to place some boundaries on those accusations. Yes, the Soviets hacked into U.S databases and harvested technical data on an almost WikiLeaks style level, which no doubt saved them billions in the process, but you can’t base your entire judgment of the Buran Shuttle on just this. 

The Space Shuttle and the Buran look almost identical because they were designed to primarily do exactly the same. In terms of aerodynamics, this is the design for a reusable spacecraft. Had the Soviets not gathered up all of the American research and actually did the hard work themselves, the designs would probably have come out fairly similar. 

Now, those people who can’t get past the external similarities are probably not going to like what I say next, because there are strong arguments that several aspects of the Buran were actually superior to the Space Shuttle – not least its automated system and boosters. As I said earlier, it’s impossible to fully compare the two because the Space Shuttles flew 135 missions and the Buran just one, but to blindly call it a rip-off does a disservice to an excellent piece of engineering that unfortunately was born at exactly the wrong time. 

Energia (astronautix.com)

Space Shuttle – Wikipedia

Buran (spacecraft) – Wikipedia

rockets – What’s the largest single object payload ever lifted into space? – Space Exploration Stack Exchange

Abandoned Soviet space shuttles rust in Kazakhstan – CNN Style

How the Soviets stole a space shuttle (nbcnews.com)

Did the Soviets Actually Build a Better Space Shuttle? (popularmechanics.com)

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