A quarter-century ago, it seemed like the space shuttle suddenly got a new sibling. On Nov. 15, 1988, the Buran reusable orbiter, the crowning achievement of the Soviet space program, made its first flight. It would prove to be the Buran's last. But looking back 25 years later, some space experts say the USSR might have built a better shuttle, one that would have laid the groundwork for a new generation of launch vehicles, had it been able to weather the economic storms of the 1990s and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Once the Soviet winged spacecraft finally made its public debut after years of secret development, an urban myth spread that it was an exact replica of the American space shuttle. It was easy to believe. A long list of Soviet equivalents of Western technology, from vacuum cleaners and cars to aircraft and rockets, were straight-up copies. But while the resemblance between the spacecraft is striking, it turned out to be deceiving.
At the outset of the Buran project in 1976, the Soviet leadership, indeed, gave its industry the task of developing a system with similar technical capabilities to the space shuttle. However, politicians left room for engineers to choose the exact path to such a vehicle, an opening that Buran chief architect Valentin Glushko exploited. As we now know from numerous unclassified documents and eyewitness accounts, Glushko's engineers did not blindly copy the shuttle but instead went through the long and painful process of determining an original architecture for the Soviet equivalent.
Eventually they agreed that the aerodynamic shape and dual-swept wings of America's shuttle provided the best solution. At the same time, they rejected NASA's economic philosophy behind the shuttle, which promised cheap access to space, thanks to a total replacement of traditional rockets with low-cost reusable spacecraft, as well as the American approach toward its launch architecture. Many historians and engineers today say that by doing so, the Soviets actually built a better system than the U.S. did. One might argue that they created the most advanced and versatile space-launch vehicle humanity had ever known.
Inside, the Buran carried many components that performed the same functions as those of its American equivalents. Both ships employed hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity and burned hydrazine to power onboard hydraulic systems. Still, Soviet engineers designed most of these mechanisms from scratch with only a general idea of how the American equivalents worked.
Most importantly, the Soviet engineers built an entirely new launch system for Buran. Instead of two relatively simple (but, as it turned out after the Challenger disaster, deadly unreliable) solid-rocket boosters, on the first stage, the Soviets employed four liquid-propellant rockets. Their legacy lives on today in the Russian–Ukrainian Zenit launcher.
The Buran engineers also used four main engines (instead of the shuttle's three) designed to provide most of the thrust during a ride to orbit. They placed these engines into a separate rocket stage, rather than on the winged orbiter itself, as was the case with the shuttle. This approach meant that the Soviet system would lose its main engines after each flight instead of returning them to Earth with the orbiter, making it less reusable. On the other hand, it meant that almost any conceivable cargo up to 95 tons, be it a space battle station, a lunar base module, or a Martian expeditionary vehicle, could be attached to the Buran's launch system. By contrast, the maximum payload of the space shuttle was limited by the 29-ton capacity of the orbiter's cargo bay.
By building Buran this way, the Soviets were essentially building the superheavy, multipurpose rocket later known as . It could potentially support the Soviet response to Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program, as well as a manned lunar base and even expeditions to Mars. However, with the end of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, none of these projects could go beyond the drawing board. Ironically, afterward it became , as U.S. engineers looked into an architecture similar to Energia's but using the shuttle's components. Unfortunately, the concept known as never went beyond a full-scale mockup.
What Could Have Been
The Soviet space strategists apparently hugely overestimated the military importance of the shuttle and felt that they had to respond with a similar system, as they normally would to any major weapon development in the U.S. The Kremlin leadership saw the space shuttle primarily as a carrier of space weapons and discounted its advertised scientific and commercial applications as an elaborate smokescreen.
At the same time, though, the Soviets never subscribed to NASA's idea that the reusable system could replace traditional throwaway rockets. Accordingly, the Soviet Buran was intended for only specific (primarily military) tasks, which would require its unique capabilities of servicing in space and returning cargo from orbit. Buran could be used in the assembly of large space stations, such as modular Mir-2 complex developed in the 1980s, as well as for deployment and resupply of spy satellites and large antisatellite and antimissile platforms, if the arms race reached space, as the Kremlin leaders feared.
However, both Energia and Buran came on the scene when the last act of the Cold War was playing out. The new face in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, was much more concerned with fi the crumbling Soviet economy than with outspending the U.S. in the arms race. As a result, none of the large and expensive space projects, which would need the awesome capabilities of Buran, ever materialized, leaving the space truck without a cargo. By 1991, the collapse of the USSR and the economic crisis in Russia that followed left Buran and its infrastructure to decay.
In the retrospect, some say that if only the Buran, or at least its Energia launcher, had weathered the economic storms of the 1990s, Russia and the world community would now have an advanced and powerful space booster capable of putting an international base on the moon and even sending humans to Mars. Instead, these days both NASA and the Russian space agency find themselves at the beginning of a decade-long road to develop a new generation of launch vehicles that could one day approach the capabilities of Buran's powerful launcher.
Anatoly Zak is the editor of and the author of Russia in Space: The Past Explained, The Future Explored.