Buran – The Space Shuttle that Died at Birth
The demise of the Soviet Union had many consequences, some of which are still being felt nearly thirty years later. In terms of space exploration, the Soviet space programme became the Russian space programme and for years it struggled for funds. At one stage it resorted to space tourism, taking anyone willing to pay to the Mir space station for a week or two. One programme that came to a complete halt was Energia/Buran – the Soviet Union’s answer to America’s space shuttle.
When the USA began developing the shuttle in the 1970s, the Russian military were seriously worried. The Cold War was still very much a reality and the generals could easily visualise an American shuttle in orbit capturing or destroying Soviet satellites. To some extent their fears were justified; at one stage the United States Air Force was due to have its own dedicated shuttle and launch facility. This never happened, but eleven shuttle missions took place with minimum publicity after being designated as military and classified. Then, by the early eighties, President Reagan was talking about ‘star wars’ with space based weapons being used to shoot down missiles in flight. The Soviets needed to match the Americans. They needed their own shuttle.
Work began in secret on a variety of possible designs and there was almost certainly some espionage going on to obtain plans and specifications of the US Shuttle. By November 1977 the Soviet design was approved and detailed development work began. A first unmanned test flight was scheduled for 1983, with regular manned flights by 1987.
Superficially the orbiter, called Buran (Russian for snowstorm), looked very similar to its American counterpart. There was one key difference however; the US orbiter had its own re-usable rocket engines, the Soviet one was an unpowered glider. Buran would be launched into orbit by a huge booster, also newly developed and called Energia. With the exception of the ill-fated N1 moon rocket, Energia was the biggest booster the Soviet Union ever produced. It had a distinct advantage over the N1 of actually working, with a 100% record of successful launches as opposed to 0% for the N1.
Despite huge amounts of money and manpower being thrown at the project, the initial timescales proved wildly optimistic. The first launch of the Energia booster did not take place until May 1987. It performed flawlessly, although the satellite it was launching failed due to a fault in its guidance system. In parallel with the booster development, a total of 25 test flights of the orbiter were made. Each time it was released from a carrier plane and glided into a landing.
Finally, on 15th November 1988 everything was ready and the first unmanned test of Energia/Buran lifted off from Baikonur at 6.00am. It was a perfect flight, after three orbits Buran re-entered the atmosphere and made a totally automated landing. Despite a strong crosswind the shuttle landed within ten metres of its target.
The flight was a huge technical triumph, arguably the greatest in the whole of the Soviet space programme, and Buran was proudly displayed at the Paris Air Show the following summer. By this stage over 15 billion roubles (roughly $9 billion) had been spent, but events elsewhere were condemning this alternative shuttle to an early death.
The day after Buran’s flight, the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration was issued, proclaiming the supremacy of Estonian laws over Soviet laws. This was one of the first steps in the break-up of the Soviet Union. Independence movements were growing in strength in many other Soviet states and in November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union was in disarray and the space programme became a very minor distraction for the politicians trying to hold the country together. Buran’s follow up flights were repeatedly postponed, until by 1993 it was clear that all the expense and development time had led to just a single flight. The orbiter that flew in 1988 sat neglected in a hangar at Baikonur. Then, in 2002, a major storm brought the building crashing down. Eight men died and Buran was destroyed.
One of the shuttles used for tests is now on display in a German aviation museum and a second is at Moscow’s ‘Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy’. Two other orbiters are languishing, and slowly rotting, in storage. These are the lingering remnants of Buran – the shuttle that died at birth.