Buran: the Space Shuttle That Almost Was
This image is not what you think it is. I know. It looks familiar, right? But it is not the Space Shuttle. It wasn’t even designed in the United States.
That is Buran, a reusable space vehicle designed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
And on November 15, 1988, when that picture was taken, it took its one and only uncrewed test flight, lasting less than four hours - just enough time to orbit the Earth twice.
But even though Buran landed perfectly in what is now Kazakhstan, it was never used again.
Back in the 1970s, when the Kremlin caught wind of a new, more powerful spacecraft that Americans were calling the Space Shuttle, they started to get a little nervous.
Now the United States, of course, claimed that they were only interested in science, but this new vehicle sounded a lot like a fantastic military tool, and the Soviets were not going to be left behind. So, they hired a bunch of engineers and set to work developing their own version of the Shuttle, which ended up looking a whole lot like NASA’s version… on the outside at least.
And the two orbiters were similar. The Buran (Russian for “blizzard”) was just a meter longer than the Space Shuttle; its payload bay was a mere 38 centimeters longer, and its vertical stabilizer was all of two centimeters taller. Plus, both used hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity, as well as hydrazine, a propellant, to power the hydraulic systems.
With all those similarities, it’s easy to look at these photos and call the Buran a carbon copy of the Space Shuttle. And yes, there are even rumors that KGB spies had gotten the shuttle’s blueprints for their engineers.
But when it came to the new rocket system called Energia, that’s where we see some major changes.
The U.S. Space Shuttle used two solid rocket boosters, plus the Shuttle’s three engines to propel the vehicle into orbit. That big external tank in the middle supplied liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer to the engines.
The thing is, solid rocket boosters are impossible to really control. They can’t be turned off, and they can't be throttled down, so once you start them, it’s basically like riding on a couple of fireworks on steroids.
In fact, they’re so dangerous that NASA engineers lobbied against using them, but they were overruled because the solid-fuel boosters were cheaper.
So the Soviet engineers went with more expensive liquid-fueled engines, which were both safer and more powerful. The Energia had four first-stage side boosters, which were fueled by a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen. Its central core booster was powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
With all that thrust, the Buran didn’t even need its own propulsion system, so it was designed to essentially be a high-tech glider. That made the Buran lighter than the Shuttle, and gave it larger payload capacity of thirty metric tons, whereas the Shuttle could only lift twenty-five metric tons.
And, as demonstrated by its only flight, the Buran could operate without a human at the helm - something NASA’s vehicle couldn’t do.
The Buran itself was reusable, and was fully recovered after its test flight.
The coolest thing about the first and only Buran flight? On reentry, complications happened and it overshot the runway. Next, it just turned 180 degrees in full glider mode, and landed in the opposite way with only several meters to spare, all by itself, without any input from ground.
The plan was that the Buran would eventually have a reusable launch system, too, but of course, it never got the chance. 1988 was not the greatest time for the Soviet Union, with the revolutions about to pop up all over the place.
So the project was put on hold, and later scrapped when the new Russian government figured it didn’t need a military spacecraft.
The one Buran that actually went to space was destroyed in 2002, when the roof of its hangar collapsed. Now, all that remains of the Shuttle’s nearly-identical twin are a few prototypes.