In a nutshell:
- The Buran space shuttle had many outward similarities to its American counterpart, but some key differences. In some ways, the Soviet shuttle was more technologically advanced.
- The Buran program was very costly at a time when the Soviet government could ill-afford the expense. The program was essentially abandoned, although it was nominally kept alive in order to maintain the illusion of competition with the United States.
- Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Buran program was finally cancelled.
- Today, several pieces of the original equipment have found their way into public display.
The Space Race, wherein the United States and the Soviet Union competed against each other to develop the latest technology for the exploration of space, is probably one of the most prominent aspects of the Cold War. Each nation achieved great milestones in an effort to best the other in technological achievement, and the dangerous nature of space exploration grabbed the attention of the world.
Indeed, the early phases of the Space Race seemed to be full of courageous exploits. Whether it was Yuri Gagarin's daring flight as the first human in space, or Neil Armstrong's memorable words as the first human on the moon, each iconic achievement of the Space Race seemed to be even more bold, even more fantastic than the last.
However, after the initial excitement of the moon landing wore off, the excitement that had surrounded the superpowers' space exploration achievements began to wane. Although the space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union continued to enjoy broad support from the science community and from die-hard amateur enthusiasts, the high costs of these projects became vulnerable to cuts as the public at large began to regard space exploration as a diversion from other, more pressing concerns.
NASA, after having grabbed the brass ring of a lunar landing, cancelled the Apollo program after just six successful trips to the Moon (and the near-tragedy of Apollo 13). The Soviets, meanwhile, began to deny that they had ever attempted to land on the Moon at all, insisting that it was all a massive hoax perpetrated on the United States in order to cause the Americans to waste time and energy on Apollo. (This claim was later proven false by the release of records of the Soviet lunar program after the collapse of the Communist government.)
Neither nation was willing to abandon space entirely. However, the new realities of reduced budgets and shrinking public support led both of the superpowers to radically rethink their endeavors.
The 1970s saw a series of technologically impressive, if somewhat uninspiring, space endeavors from each nation. On the American side, the Apollo Applications Program sought to derive practical benefits from the technologies developed for the Moon landing. One offshoot was the Skylab space station (see image at right) , itself fashioned from the booster stage of the same Saturn V rocket design that had powered the successful Apollo Moon missions.
The Soviets, meanwhile, worked extensively on their Soyuz space capsule, developing it into a platform that is still the most reliable (and soon, only) way to get humans into space. They also got into the space station game, developing several small designs in a program called Salyut.
Also in the 1970s, the United States announced that it would develop a vehicle that could take people and materials into low earth orbit, return to earth, and be reused. This concept was in stark contrast to previous vehicle designs, in which almost all of the hardware used in a launch was discarded and burned up in the atmosphere. NASA spent most of the decade and billions of dollars on this project, which eventually yielded the now-familiar Space Shuttle.
Although the Space Shuttle was a technological wonder that would eventually lead to great gains in many fields of science, it did not inspire great enthusiasm among the public. Many had expected the next great push from the nation that landed a man on the Moon to be a trip to Mars, or perhaps a comet. In contrast, many viewed the Space Shuttle as an expensive way to fly in circles a few hundred miles from earth - not terribly exciting.
It was, however, exciting for the Soviet government, who saw the Shuttle an immense military and strategic threat. Its large payload, the Soviets believed, would enable it to carry weapons and spy satellites into space and would render these payloads essentially invisible to the outside world. Soviet military planners even worried that the Shuttle could be used as an offensive weapon, dropping bombs on Russia from the relative safety of space. These fears seemed to be confirmed when news leaked that the American military was eyeing the potential for a military version of the Shuttle.
Thus, the Soviet government ordered its scientists and engineers to develop a Soviet shuttle, and the Buran program was born. This marked a new phase in the Space Race, as many of the same scientists and engineers who had struggled on both sides to send spacecraft to the moon in the previous decade now worked tirelessly to develop technology that would make orbital spaceflight entirely routine.
That was the dream, after all: routine spaceflight. In the Apollo/Soyuz era, getting humans into space was both enormously expensive and extremely dangerous. The hardware costs alone were staggering - the technology on both sides required millions of dollars worth of equipment to be discarded during each launch. And, while there were no American casualties in spaceflight prior to the loss of the Challenger shuttle in 1986, the Soviets had lost quite a few of their best and brightest as a result of their space program - although this information would not become public until many years later.
So, the goal of the American and Soviet designers was that the shuttles would make spaceflight as safe and ordinary as standard aviation. They envisioned hardware that could be reused multiple times and would be simple and safe to operate. Both sides desired fleets of spacecraft that could fly much more frequently than their predecessors - in fact, the Americans even planned to have several Space Shuttles in space at the same time, indefinitely. This ease of use and lowering of expense would open the door to ever-expanding uses of spaceflight and pave the way for new exploration in the future.
The result of these efforts on the American side was the Space Shuttle, a design that was both extraordinary and dissapointing in that it was a great leap forward from previous technology but did not realize the cost savings, increased safety, and frequency of flight that had been dreamed of by its designers.
The Americans did achieve one major goal, though: their design came first. The first functional orbiter, Columbia, was delivered to NASA in 1979 and launched in 1981, coincidentally on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight.
The Soviets, however, continued to struggle with their design. The first full-scale Buran shuttle was rolled out in 1984, but the first launch did not come until 1988.
Outwardly, the Soviet and American designs were remarkably similar. In fact, I can remember watching ABC World News Tonight with my parents when footage of Buran was first released, and I distinctly recall Peter Jennings chuckling, "Looks kind of familar, doesn't it?" The implication, of course, was that the Soviets had copied our design.
In reality, however, Buran had some very striking differences. The exterior design was, indeed, very similar, primarily because that design proved to be the most stable and efficient for the mission parameters.
The key differences, however, were in the technology and the capabilities of the two spacecraft. For example, while the American shuttle was designed for a crew of 7, Buran was designed to transport 10 cosmonauts to space and back.
Additionally, the launch system for Buran - called Energia - was much more advanced than the one used by the American shuttle. While the American shuttle is an essential part of its launch system - in fact, the shuttle itself carries some of the main rocket engines required for launch - Buran was designed to be one of many different payloads that the Energia system could deliver, and all of the rocket power required to get Buran into space was carried on Energia instead of on the orbiter. This allowed Buran's designers to save considerable weight, and gave Buran a higher payload-to-weight ratio than the American shuttle.
Buran also had a much-advanced flight control system, including an internal computer capable of landing the orbiter without any human input or direction - considered essential in case the crew became incapacitated during a flight. In fact, the first (and only) orbital flight of Buran occurred without any humans on board - a feat that the American shuttle could not match until much later. Buran was also designed to be fitted with jet engines to give it greater power and maneuverability during its return flight (NASA's shuttle is completely unpowered on the return stage and essentially acts like a giant glider), but these engines were not yet installed at the time of the first flight.
For all of its technological features, Buran was hampered by the massive internal unrest within the Soviet Union. Compared to the NASA shuttle program, Buran had been underfunded from the beginning, and these problems grew more severe during the 1980s. While significant progress was made and several orbiters and test vehicles were either completed or nearly so, only one functional orbiter was ever delivered, and only one orbital flight was ever made - and that flight did not carry any humans.
The program was largely starved of funds and abandoned in the final years of the Soviet Union, and it was officially cancelled in 1993 by Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
Today, bits and pieces of this once-great program can be found scattered across the former Soviet Union. After its only flight, the single functional orbiter was returned to a hangar in the Russian launch facility of Baikonur, where it remained until it was destroyed in the collapse of that hangar on May 12, 2002 (see picture at right; the windows of the orbiter are visible at the bottom). The cause of the collapse is thought to have been structural failure caused by poor maintenance in the 14 years between Buran's flight and its demise.
There were four other orbiters under construction at the time of the collapse. One, nicknamed Pitchka, was almost fully complete (some say 97%) and had already been mounted to a fully-assembled Energia launch vehicle when it was abandoned in the vehicle assembly building at Baikonur. It is still there to this day, covered in a thick layer of dust and surrounded by other discarded hardware of the Soviet space program.
The second, which had been designated as "Shuttle 2.01," was to have been the shuttle used for the first manned missions. It is only partially complete, and it still sits unfinished in the factory at Baikonur in which it was being assembled.
"Shuttle 2.02," the third unfinished orbiter, was only about 10%-20% complete at the time it was abandoned. The pieces of this craft now sit outside the Tushino Machine Building Plant near Moscow, where it was being built. Some of the tiles from this shuttle's heat shield were recently removed from the orbiter and sold on the internet.
There were also several test vehicles for the Buran program that were built during the development phase of the project. These vehicles were used to test static loads, aerodynamic characteristics, handling, and the like. Several of these remain - mostly in and around the Baikonur complex - although two of them are on public display. One, located in Moscow's Gorky Park, was used to test loads and stresses on the airframe caused by orbital flight and reentry. The other, which was fitted with jet engines and flown to test the flight handling characteristics of the Buran design, is on display at the Technikmuseum Speyer in the city of Speyer, Germany. (See photo at left, taken on my honeymoon in 2009.)
Of course, the American shuttle program is also nearing the end of its life, with the final shuttle flights planned for later this year. Once NASA retires the shuttles, it will be left with no method of transporting humans into space other than hiring the Russians to use their still-operational Soyuz capsules for that purpose. It is ironic that, after so many years and so many resources spent developing the highly-advanced space shuttle concepts, both the U.S. and Russia have gone back to technology developed in the 1950s and 1960s to meet their spaceflight needs.
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