Many years ago, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union flew a winged, nuclear-armed spacecraft called the Buran Space Shuttle.
The ambitious project, which was specifically described as a Soviet response to the 1970s-era US Space Shuttle, was a 119-foot, 93,000-pound winged spacecraft intended for both military and scientifically-oriented unmanned and possibly manned space travel.
Part of the thinking was to build a space vehicle capable of military missions and also supporting the Mir-2 Space Station, yet the program wound up getting canceled after a single flight in 1988.
An essay from Russianspaceweb.com explains the cancellation, which reportedly emerged in large measure due to cost and the simple fact that Russian decision-makers were fundamentally unable to specify its mission scope. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also largely responsible for the termination of the Buran.
“After a single flight in 1988, the program quickly ran out of funds, as the Soviet Ministry of Defense fully realized the lack of purpose for the system, compared to its tremendous cost. The cost of launching around 20 tons of payload on the Energia-Buran system was estimated at 270 million rubles, compared to 5.5 million rubles to deliver a similar mass on the Proton rocket. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the program was essentially shut down and, in 1993, the head of NPO Energia, Yuri Semenov, publicly admitted that the project was dead,” the Russianspaceweb.com paper says.
Did Buran Influence X-37B?
Although it may have disappeared with what could be thought of as premature death, the structure of the aircraft, combined with its performance parameters indicate the vehicle may have been ahead of its time and a possible precursor or inspiration to the US Space Force’s now rapidly evolving X-37B spacecraft. Also, unlike the late 1980s, there are likely many new innovations such as thermal management, flight controls and sensing technologies which make today’s space shuttle much more survivable.
One thing the Buran does seem to indicate is that, decades ago, the Former Soviet Union was clearly interested in militarizing space to gain tactical advantage, something the US was holding off on for years out of a belief and hope that the space domain might remain a collaborative, multi-national sanctuary worthy of scientific discovery, exploration and extensive research. However, as evidenced by areas of emphasis in recent decades, the Soviet Union and now Russia continued to weaponize space, a reality which ultimately led to the US effort to defend itself in space, develop weapons and platforms and ultimately create the US Space Force.
Interestingly, the Buran does seem to have at least in part inspired the development of the fast-evolving X-37B, a mysterious, cutting edge effort to engineer and test a manned or unmanned spacewar platform able to exit the earth’s atmosphere for a wide range of missions and then return to the earth’s orbit.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.