However, there was one noticeable design difference between the American and Soviet versions of the space shuttle—the absence of main rocket engines on Buran. Unlike the American space shuttle that relied on three hydrogen-fueled engines to aid in reaching orbit, the Soviet spacecraft carried only lighter maneuvering rockets, which gave it the capability to carry heavier payloads to and from space.
Another differentiating feature between the orbiters was that, although it could accommodate up to 10 cosmonauts, Buran could fly unmanned, and as it soared above the earth on its test mission 25 years ago the cockpit was empty.
The pilotless, remote-controlled spacecraft circled the planet twice from an altitude of miles before it re-entered the atmosphere and was escorted by MIG fighter jets as it glided to a flawless landing at the spaceport from which it had blasted off three hours and 25 minutes before. The test flight of Buran came just weeks after NASA launched the space shuttle Discovery, which marked the return of American astronauts to space after a month hiatus following the Challenger disaster. But in spite of the triumphant maiden mission, the voyage of Buran would mark the final chapter in the space race between the United States and Soviet Union that dominated the Cold War.
The Soviet space shuttle never flew again, and in spite of the billions of dollars spent on the program, it never transported a single cosmonaut into space. Cutbacks forced future missions of Buran to be put on hold, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in , funding for the space program crumbled with it. Russia officially cancelled the Buran program in with four other space shuttle vehicles in various stages of construction.
American space shuttles would end up being the orbital vehicles used to dock with the Russian Mir space station. The Buran spacecraft that orbited the earth 25 years ago gathered dust for years inside a hangar at the space center in Kazakhstan, and much like the country that built it, the spacecraft is no more.
During a storm in , the hangar roof collapsed and Buran lay crushed beneath the rubble. As a matter of fact, its military potential was so groundbreaking, the Soviet Union decided they needed a Space Shuttle too! Welcome the Buran. The Soviet Union strapped the Buran shuttle to the side of the third most powerful rocket ever: the twice flown Energia rocket.
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 , and the first full scale orbiter saw the light of day in Physics pretty well dictates the shape of the vehicle, and the Soviet Union quickly realized the U. 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.
Buran space shuttle and the Energia launcher
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. 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.
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Upon landing, it came out looking fantastic. 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, , 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. Somewhere in this rubble hides the wreck of a Buran. 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!
The hangar storing two Burans. 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! Loved this article, Tim. Keep up the great work, brother. Thanks for this article. It is one of my favorite rockets. And this channel is one of my favorites But I want to give some additional data to you. Not all soviet shuttles were named Buran. Buran blizzard in russian was the first orbiter that was made for unmanned cargo missions.
The Forgotten Soviet Space Shuttle Could Fly Itself
The other Cargo launcher was Ptichka that was the other Soviet cargo shuttle. Another one that would launch after those two was Baikal that would be manned. Ptichka was one of those shuttles in the hangar image. There is Ok3 to Ok8 shuttles, while some are displayed at air shows and once was shown at the Sydney Olympics, most of them are in hangers or covered in shelter. The jet engines were only for atmospheric testing. Not present on or ever intended for space orbiters.
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I got to see Buran in on a visit to Kazakhstan with the Youth Space Center, an organization in Moscow for promoting Russian aerospace. In fact, you can see some photos taken on that trip here: Its the first two links on that page. One of our guides was a woman who trained to be a cosmonaut but never flew, Victoria Mayorovna. She heads the Youth Space Center. She claimed it was well understood at the time of their development there were American spies sabotaging their efforts to make both the RD high thrust engine, used in the boosters, and the RD high efficiency engines, used in the core.
They were worked on at the same time and shared engineering data, where applicable. She said she and others came to that conclusion because the number of RUDs were abnormally large in their development, even taking into account how advanced the engine were. Within that group of pictures I linked to above there are some round steel structures. These are the remains of the last of the N-1 moon rockets.
I was a dumb kid so, when everyone was looking somewhere else, I stuck my thumbnail into material. I was told by a graduate student of the University of Bauman, where the Youth Space Center is located, that the bottom of the Buran fleet were each cast as a single piece with a single pour into a single mold.
I mean the structural bottom, the part the tiles attached to. If true, and I have no reason to doubt, is an astounding feat of engineering.