A Brief History of Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part Two: Guest Post by Jay Chladek

A Buran wind tunnel model. Photo by author Kobel, from Wikimedia Commons.

Here is part two of space historian Jay Chladek’s series about the real history of the Buran orbiter and its launch system, Energia. Enjoy!

So Why Is It Called Buran?

So why is the program called Buran, which means “Snowstorm” in Russian? That has to do with Soviet naming traditions in regards to space programs.

Soviet spacecraft and rocket programs tend to be known by three word acronyms when they are in development. In the case of Salyut, it was known by the acronym DOS until just before launch when somebody suggested calling it “Salyut” (Russian for “salute”) since it would be flying on the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. The Proton rocket was named in a similar way because its first payload was a science satellite called “Proton.” When the first Soviet orbiter was rolled out, it did not have a name painted on the side. But when it was mated with its booster, it had “Buran” painted on the side in an italics-style font, and that became the name when it was revealed publicly to the world press. The rocket booster gained the “Energia” name in similar fashion. A few short weeks before the first flight of the booster with the “Polyus” payload, Glushko made the decision to call it “Energia” and the name was painted on the booster in big red letters.

First (And Only) Flight

Even with all the work that had been accomplished, Buran was still not a 100% finished system when the decision was made to fly it in late 1988. Work on the orbiter’s exterior, guidance and propulsion system was complete, but lots of work was still needed on its life support, heat exchangers (in the payload bay doors), and orbital power systems. Two plans were apparently on the table to fly the ship unmanned. One would be a two orbit test to verify getting up and getting back. The second would be a test of the other systems to show that Buran could stay in orbit once there. Several cosmonauts in the program tried to lobby for the shuttle to be flown manned on an all-up test, just like Columbia (STS-1, flown on April 12, 1981 by the United States). But it likely would have taken an additional two years to finish those systems for either a manned or unmanned two-day flight.

As to why the decision was made to fly the unfinished Buran in 1988, it probably had a lot to do with NASA’s shuttle plans. In 1986, NASA’s program was grounded after the loss of space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L. The program went through a two-and-a half-year delay before shuttle Discovery rose into orbit on STS-26 in September 1988. For those two-and-a-half years, the Soviets had commanded the space headlines with their successful launching and occupation of the Mir space station, and Buran would have added to the prestige if they had gotten it to fly before the Americans did. Even though they missed out on that opportunity, chances were good that Buran could fly before Atlantis did on STS-27, and give the West the perception that the Soviets had a new capability which was “equal” to the Americans.

One attempt was made in October to fly Buran, but the launch called off at the last minute due to a technical fault. When Buran did fly on November 15th, 1988, it lived up to its namesake as the launch area was in the middle of a snowstorm. The stack disappeared into the clouds shortly after liftoff. But even though nobody saw the vehicle as it went upwards, everything seemed to be working perfectly. Two orbits later it fired its deorbit engines and returned to Baikonur for a picture perfect automated landing, a feat which not even the American shuttle had done. Joy appeared on the faces of the many program managers and engineers who had spent years working on the Soviet shuttle. They had done it!

After the mission and a post-flight inspection, Buran made an appearance at the Paris Airshow in 1989 on the back of the An-225 transport jet, to date still the largest heavy transport aircraft in the world. There was big talk of what the Buran program would do next and about a year later, another Soviet shuttle and Energia rocket was seen stacked on the pad at Baikonur for testing. There were plans for the second Buran shuttle, “Ptichka” (name meaning “little bird”) to do a manned flight to the Mir space station to deliver an X-ray telescope payload. Indeed, Mir had been set up with two docking ports capable of handling Buran (technically one port for Buran, one for the telescope). But, it wasn’t meant to be. The November flight would be the Buran program’s only flight into space, and even the Energia rocket would never fly again.

Cancellation and Legacy

So, after all that effort, why did neither the Buran nor the Energia rocket ever fly in space again?

The simple answer is money. In 1985, the Soviets appointed a new leader of the Soviet Union in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet economy had suffered over a decade of stagnation, and Gorbachev sought to try and correct that. At the same time, military and defense expenditures were on the rise, while technologically the Soviets had fallen far behind the West. There was also a very costly war being fought in Afghanistan. Gorbachev’s economic, social and political reforms sought to try and correct the problems, but it had other ripple effects. Ultimately the Soviet Union ceased to be a country in August 1991. After that, countries within its borders became independent and in the resulting hyper-inflation of Russian currency, nobody really had the money to invest in development of Buran anymore and they barely had enough funds to keep the Mir space station operational. Many mid-level engineers who worked on the Buran program had to take other jobs and/or sell goods on the black market just to make ends meet.

But even before that, there is evidence that the Buran test flight wasn’t as perfect as we were lead to believe. The Buran shuttle suffered visible heat damage to its right wing tiles, and the rest of the shuttle’s thermal insulation also showed evidence that it may not have come through its first reentry as well as Columbia did on STS-1. I’ve also heard rumors that the Buran suffered a burn through during reentry, although I haven’t heard any specific accounts of what exactly happened. Even if the Buran’s heat shield had come through with flying colors, it still needed two years of intense effort and high cost to get the rest of the vehicle’s systems ship-shape for a manned flight.

Another blow to the program occurred when Valentin Glushko died in January of 1989. Although Glushko appointed a successor to him in the form of Boris Gubanov, the NPO/Energia design bureau lacked the leadership of someone approaching the level of Glushko or Korolev. But even if Glushko had lived a few more years, it is doubtful even he could hold his bureau together when the Soviet Union collapsed. One of the challenges faced by Energia into the 1990s was the rising price of critical pieces of space hardware. Many sub-contractors which had made hardware during the Soviet era were now located in independent countries such as Ukraine, not Russia, and the bill for their services went up.

As for the Energia booster, while it had two successful space flights it never flew again simply because it lacked a payload. The Proton rocket achieved great success on the civilian market, launching satellite payloads for commercial customers. But nobody had a need to launch anything using Energia, which could haul massive payloads. So the booster remained unflown. Not all was lost though, as the strap-on boosters were modified to become a successful medium-sized launch vehicle known as “Zenit”.

The Buran itself, Ptichka and the developmental airframes, along with a mockup of an Energia booster pretty much remained mothballed in the buildings at Baikonur. In 2002, an industrial accident at the building housing the original Buran orbiter caused the roof to collapse. When the roof caved in, it totally destroyed the Buran and the Energia mockup it was displayed with. Surviving equipment was moved into a second building where it is all housed to this day. This building and the Energia launch facilities sit unused and abandoned. Given that Baikonur sits in a desert in the middle of Kazakhstan, there isn’t really much of a need to dismantle these structures as not too many people live there anyway.

Periodically there is talk of restarting the Energia program, but even today Russian space hardware development is still expensive. While the Russian economy is in a better state than it was in the mid-1990s, diplomatic relations with other countries have been somewhat rocky in recent years. Energia might potentially find life as a booster for a mission to Mars, but such plans seem to be more wishful thinking than anything else. As NASA has found out, it can cost just as much to restart an old program as it does to start from scratch.

From Wikimedia Commons: “Russian Buran OK-M test article, after refurbishment and display at the Baikonur museum in Kazakhstan.” Photo by Alexander A. Karsakbayev, labeled November 2007

Ultimately, one piece of Buran-designed hardware ended up flying in space on a regular basis and that is the ODS (Orbiter Docking System). When NASA and the Russian space program entered into the ISS partnership in the mid-1990s, NASA needed a capability for the shuttle to dock with the Mir station and the Russians provided it in the form of the APAS-89 docking system. This docking system actually had its origins with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of the 1970s and it was different from the probe and drogue system utilized by the Soyuz craft. Mir was already set up with two APAS docking ports for the Buran X-ray telescope mission that never flew. So NASA adapted it and used the ODS for successful linkups with the Mir space station. Later the system continued to be used as the APAS-89 docking collar formed the basis for the Pressurized Mating Adapters used on the International Space Station. So every time a shuttle docked with the ISS, it utilized the ODS originally developed for Buran.

So while the Buran itself may be little more than a footnote in Soviet space history, it has left a lasting legacy which continues to this day.

Jay Chladek is a freelance space historian and model builder who has written chapters in various books about plastic models of aircraft and spacecraft, both real and fictional. He has also won awards at various levels for his model building work, and has had an interest in space since he was a child growing up in the 1970s. Outposts on the Frontier: A Fifty Year History of Space Stations is his first book in the subject of space history, and will be published as part of the University of Nebraska’s Outward Odyssey series in 2017. Many thanks to Jay for contributing this series!

Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.


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