Why the Buran Is Only a Footnote in Space History: During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union fortunately never engaged in direct combat – but there were moments when things could have gone quite differently.
A key event occurred on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. That triggered a 12-year contest – one that was spirited, high-risk, and costly – between the Soviets and the Americans to gain dominance in the new frontier of space.
Though the so-called “space race” culminated with the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, the epic rivalry between the two nations continued into the 1970s and 1980s. After the end of the Apollo program, the United States refocused on the Space Shuttle, its fourth human spaceflight program – which accomplished routine transportation for Earth-to-orbit crew and cargo from 1981 to 2011. It successfully flew 135 missions and carried 355 astronauts from 16 countries into orbit.
Tragically, two shuttles – STS-51-L Challenger and STS-107 Columbia – were lost in accidents.
However, the Soviet space agency, which faced several challenges, sought to develop its own reusable spaceplane. The Buran (Russian for “Blizzard”) was produced as part of the name of the program as well as the orbiter/spacecraft. It has been widely described as the Soviet space shuttle.
Origins of the Buran
The concept of a reusable spacecraft had actually existed before the first rockets launched humans into space, and was first considered by future Soviet space program manager Sergei Korolev in the 1930s. Soviet interest in such a vehicle was revived in the 1950s, but for the next 30 years, it was still a secondary consideration.
It was only after the early U.S. space shuttle launches that the Soviet Ministry of Defense took a renewed interest in the project, due to the fact that it could deliver larger and more complex spy satellites into orbit and even allow crews to conduct maintenance and repairs. Moscow was even concerned that the space shuttle could be employed as a type of orbital bomber.
Soviet researchers Yu.G. Sikharulidze and Dmitry Okhotsimsky had written a report that warned how the space shuttle could make a “dive” in its orbit as it passed over Moscow, and release a nuclear weapon. This alarmed Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev so much that he ordered that a set of alternative measures be developed to secure the country from such an attack. In addition, the Soviets saw the potential for such a space plane, and they began their own program and soon started testing an unpiloted scale model of the Buran, called the Bor.
Though the development had been conducted in secret, Australian fishermen caught sight of a Soviet ship pulling a small-scale model from the ocean. There were soon reports that the Soviet Union was trying to build a shuttle to match the U.S. one. Through espionage, the Soviets had even obtained the design specifications of the U.S. shuttle.
A Soviet Design
As previously reported, with all the technical information they needed, construction on the Buran began in 1980, and within just four years, the Soviets were able to unveil a strikingly familiar-looking spacecraft. Despite the clear aesthetic resemblance, however, the Buran did depart from the American design in a number of important ways.
Instead of housing the vehicle’s main engines within the spacecraft, the Soviet designers opted to attach the space plane to a super-heavy lift Energia rocket. In addition, it was also designed and built to operate autonomously, making it capable of completing orbital missions without a crew on board.
Amid much international speculation on the abilities of the craft and after numerous delays and setbacks, the Soviet Union launched the Buran from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 15, 1988. It did not have a crew on board, which may have been seen as an appropriate precaution given past Soviet space mishaps.
The vessel’s autonomous system reportedly worked flawlessly, and after completing two orbits, it returned to Earth, making a perfect runway landing. The Soviets began to prepare for another launch and even began the construction of two other vehicles but neither was completed. Just three years after Buran’s first and only successful flight, the Soviet Union broke apart. The Russian government officially canceled the program.
For nearly 15 years, the last remaining full-scale test model of the Buran was housed at the Russian Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, until it was destroyed when the hanger where it was stored collapsed.
However, the legacy of the program can be seen in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. During a visit to Washington, D.C. in 1992, Boris Yeltsin – the first democratically elected president of Russia – presented models of the Soviet Buran spacecraft and Energia launch vehicle to the Smithsonian.
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.