The Forgotten Soviet Space Shuttle Could Fly Itself

During the Cold War, the USSR built a look-alike space shuttle to compete with the U.S. program. 

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The Soviets feared that the U.S. space shuttle would be used as a weapon, so they built their own—with the help of stolen plans.

The space shuttle program is history now, but its iconic names still stir memories of spaceflight adventure: Enterprise, Challenger, Buran.

Wait, Buran?

That name did indeed adorn a space shuttle, a Soviet doppelganger born of the Cold War. The Buran program survived long enough to consume cash until its government had none to spare—but the spacecraft barely got off the ground. Buran (Russian for snowstorm) made only one spaceflight. It orbited Earth on November 15, 1988, completing an uncrewed, 3 1/2-hour flight. The successful launch wasn't much to show for many years of effort, but it's not the whole Buran story.

Scientists in the USSR had toyed with ideas of reusable spacecraft for decades. But the growth of the U.S. space shuttle program during the early 1970s ignited Soviet interest in producing a similar spacecraft. (The space shuttle Columbia launched the U.S. shuttle program into orbit in April 1981.)

Cold War rivalry—and fear of space weaponry—made the Soviet Union feel it had to match U.S. accomplishments in kind, says Cathleen Lewis, curator of International Space Programs at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

“The Soviet speculation was that the shuttle would be used to capture or destroy satellites,” says Lewis, who specializes in Soviet and Russian space programs. “This was during the era when the Soviet Union was really going full force trying to keep up with U.S. military technology, so they wanted a shuttle for themselves and they built it as a competitor to the U.S. shuttle.”

The decision didn't sit well with many inside the Soviet space program.

“It was roundly decried in the arena of Soviet space sciences at that time,” Lewis says. Soviet space officials lamented Buran's draining of funds from more successful endeavors.  “It was the time when their space scientists had the world's attention because of the culmination of Soviet accomplishment in exploring Venus.” (Tuesday is the anniversary of the first human spaceflight, by Yuri Gagarin in 1961.)

Despite those objections, the Soviet government committed extensive resources to the program.

At its peak, Buran involved more than 150,000 engineers, scientists, technicians, and other employees—even if many of the factory workers didn't initially know exactly what they were producing. The program began in secret, but word soon leaked out. In 1982, Australian reconnaissance aircraft circulated photos of Russian ships pulling out of the ocean a small model spacecraft that looked very familiar to American eyes.

The Soviet shuttle bore a striking resemblance to its American counterpart for good reason: Its designers had acquired American shuttle specifications through espionage. But while the Soviets used all the information they could gather about the U.S. version, they didn't blindly copy it. Their design featured some important differences.

Celebrated Soviet test pilots flew the craft on training flights (in Earth’s atmosphere, not in space), but Buran was ultimately designed to travel without the need for a human operator. Its single orbiting flight is notable for that accomplishment—the shuttle returned from space with a fine airplane-style landing controlled entirely by computer.

Another obvious difference between the shuttles was the engine design.

The U.S. space shuttle's three main engines returned to Earth with the orbiter after each flight. Buran relied on four main engines that were housed in a separate, disposable rocket stage. Relying on a launch vehicle rather than designing high-efficiency engines was intended to save money, Lewis says.

An enormous Energia rocket was designed to be as powerful as any rocket ever built. That gave the system flexibility. The U.S. shuttle could carry into space only what fit into its cargo bay, but the powerful Soviet rocket could haul most anything into space at much heavier payloads of over 100 tons. That flexibility was attractive during an era when Cold War minds were occupied with possibilities from future space stations to President Reagan's "Star Wars" program.

The collapse of the Soviet economy meant none of the ambitious programs that might have tested and refined the rocket for future uses ever materialized. Instead, the Energia rocket shared the same fate as Buran itself, mothballed after the 1988 launch and never to fly again. President Boris Yeltsin officially canceled the program in 1993.

“So it's what might have been,” Lewis says. “These are things that we'll never know.”

A few crumbling test shuttles, with some rather interesting histories, are all that's left of the once proud program. The Buran that made the program's only orbital flight is no more. It was destroyed in 2002 when its hangar at Baikonur Cosmodrome collapsed in an accident that claimed eight lives. Two sister ships used for testing purposes now sit in states of gradual decay; one at the cosmodrome on the lonely steppe of Kazakhstan and another at the Zhukovsky Air Base near Moscow.

A second pair of test shuttles has remained in the public eye. One has circled the globe by barge and even made an appearance at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. It now resides at the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany. The second test airframe once provided the structure for a restaurant in Moscow's Gorky Park. In 2014, it made another voyage, landing in a more public display in Moscow's Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy.

That move has Lewis wondering why Buran's history is being publicly celebrated once again and just what its legacy might be. The Russians “are certainly not planning to resurrect the technology. But even as an icon of the past it certainly isn't the ideal way you'd want to present past history. They've had many far more successful space activities than the Buran project.” 

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