The Space Shuttle. One of the most iconic spacecraft of all time. Despite it not quite living up to its promise of bringing down the cost of spaceflight, it sure did have some unmatched capabilities. It repaired satellites; and maybe even more impressive, brought them back down to Earth!
As a matter of fact, its military potential was so groundbreaking, the Soviet Union decided they needed a Space Shuttle too! Welcome the Buran. A more powerful, more capable version of the United States’ Space Shuttle.
The Buran might look an awful lot like the Space Shuttle, but despite it’s looks, it performed in a quite different manner. The Soviet Union strapped the Buran shuttle to the side of the third most powerful rocket ever: the twice flown Energia rocket. The Buran orbiter didn’t do any of the lifting, unlike the the Space Shuttle Orbiter which had three RS-25 main engines power it through ascent.
The point of the United States’ Space Shuttle was to reuse as much of the vehicle as possible, hence why they recovered the expensive (and heavy) RS-25 engines. This meant the Buran/Energia had a higher payload mass, but not actually by as much as you’d think.
Although reusability was a factor for the Soviet Union too, the main reason the Soviet Union pursued the Buran was for its military potential. The ability to service satellites or even potentially deliver powerful weapons from its large payload bay was all too appealing.
Construction of the Buran orbiters began in 1980, and the first full scale orbiter saw the light of day in 1984. The striking resemblance to the United States’ Shuttle is of course no coincidence, but it’s not just a knock off. Physics pretty well dictates the shape of the vehicle, and the Soviet Union quickly realized the U.S. did their homework and followed suit. But despite the looks, they still had quite the engineering challenge ahead of them.
The Soviets developed a fully autonomous system that could perform the entire flight and landing by itself. They of course had to develop their own fuel cells and control system. Then they strapped it to their massive Energia rocket, which was a mighty and powerful beast too! This meant the Soviets had developed a more flexible system by making the Energia capable of other payloads and not just the Buran.
Not only that, the Buran was also to be capable of powered flight in the air thanks to four jet engines at the aft end of the vehicle. This means it offered redundancy and flexibility when landing, unlike the U.S. shuttle, which only had one shot to get it right. However, they weren’t present on the first launch of the Buran.
The only orbital flight of the Buran (OK-1K1) took place 30 years ago today, on November 15th, 1988 at 3:00 UTC. It went off flawlessly, putting the Buran into space, boosting itself into a slightly higher orbit, and then returning to earth after just two orbits, making a perfect runway landing.
Upon landing, it came out looking fantastic. It had only lost 8 of its 38,000 thermal tiles, which is quite a contrast to the United State’s first shuttle mission which lost 16 tiles and had 148 tiles damaged.
The buran was supposed to fly again 5 years later, but with the fall of the end of the Soviet Union, end the Cold War, the Buran program went on ice and the Buran orbiter would never fly again.
Worst of all, on May 12, 2002, the only flown Buran was wrecked when the hangar storing it collapsed because of poor maintenance. The collapse tragically killed 8 workers and also completely ruined the OK-1K1 orbiter.
Today, there are two derelict Burans wasting away in a rusty hangar in Kazakhstan. A few adventure seekers have snuck in to photograph them… man, I want to do that so badly!
There’s also an OK-GLI glider prototype, sort of the cousin to the Space Shuttle Enterprise on display at the Speyer Technik Museum in Germany.
To help remember one of the coolest vehicles of all time, I made a limited edition shirt, patch and sticker collection for Buran! Pre-orders open now!