Buran: The forgotten Soviet space shuttle

Buran HPIt’s been just over two years since Nasa mothballed the Space Shuttle, but did you know that the Soviet Union built an almost identical shuttle known as Buran?

Development on Buran (‘snowstorm’ in Russian) started in 1974, primarily for defence purposes in response to the perceived military threat posed by the United States’ shuttle programme.

With the US winning the race to put the first man on the moon, it’s easy to forget that it was the Soviet Union that managed to get the first man into space (although Yuri Gagarin beat Alan Shepard by just a matter of weeks).

In 1963, the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space – a milestone which, wasn’t met by the US until 1983, courtesy of the late Sally Ride. However, with Buran, it was the Americans that led the way, with the Soviets following their lead.

The Buran, superficially at least, was practically identical to Nasa‘s shuttle, almost certainly as a result of Cold War espionage. Having said that, the US didn’t make things particularly difficult for the KGB – all of the technology that went into the space shuttle programme was, inexplicably, unclassified and open to anyone.

The ‘shared’ data from the US meant that Buran was very similar to the American vehicle in terms of size and shape. However, with a strong heritage in space flight, the Soviets had also been working on a form of reusable space plane as far back as the 1960s, so they also had plenty of their own homegrown tech to deploy for Buran. The main difference was that Buran’s main engines were housed in the standalone Energia launch vehicle, rather than on the shuttle itself.

STS-Buran-petitThe propellant used in both the boosters and the shuttles’ manoeuvring systems was also different, and the thermal protection tiles were laid out differently on the two vehicles. The Buran was designed with an automatic landing system, which was only later fitted (and never used) on Nasa’s shuttle as a precautionary measure. The Soviet shuttle was designed to take a maximum crew of ten, as opposed to the space shuttle’s seven and crucially, the Soviet version was fitted with ejector seats.

The USSR built a total of eight test models and five production models and on 15 November 1988, the first flight-ready Buran shuttle was launched from the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Although the flight was unmanned, the shuttle spent three hours in space and made two orbits of the Earth before landing safely.

The timing of the Buran’s 1988 maiden flight was unfortunate. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in full swing, the Soviet Union was crumbling, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only a year away. The state and its economy eventually collapsed in 1991, with the Buran programme being officially cancelled in 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin, a year before the first planned flight with a crew on board.

While the US may have won the shuttle race, with the programme ceased after 30 years of service, US astronauts have had to hitch lifts to the International Space Station (ISS)aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft – at around $63million a seat.

While both the Buran, and the more successful Space Shuttle both led to technical advances for their respective space agencies, many of which are now in commercial use, the orbiters themselves now live out their days as museum exhibits.

Buran_Launchpad_12_medNasa’s four remaining shuttles (including test vehicle Enterprise) are spread out at various museums across the US. Sadly, the only Buran that actually made it to space – OK-1K1 – was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002.

Test vehicle OK-GL1 is displayed at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany, while another test unit is displayed in Moscow’s Gorky Park, serving as a tourist attraction and a relic of the Soviet era.

Having made it my mission to see all of Nasa’s decommissioned space shuttles – I’ve already ticked off Enterprise, Discovery and Columbia (the last of which I saw on the launch pad ten years before its tragic demise) – Buran has now been added to the list. Next stop, Gorky Park.

For some great images, head over to russianspaceweb.com and buran.su

This article was originally published on 30 July 2013 on The Huffington Post UK.

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Neil ArmstrongWhen I heard the sad news of Neil Armsrong’s death via NBC‘s Twitter feed, it really hit home that the only generation to have walked on the moon won’t be with us forever.

Many of the elite Apollo astronauts, including first American in space Alan Shephard, have already departed and only two of the Mercury Seven – immortalised in the 1983 biopic The Right Stuff – survive (although John Glenn continues to bat a cracking innings at the age of 91 and even managed to get into the record books as the oldest person in space when he flew on the space shuttle at the age of 77, as well as being the only individual to fly in both the Mercury and shuttle programmes. What a life!).

Even relative youngster and first American woman in space Sally Ride passed away a short time ago. Sad times indeed.

If we ignore the crackpot conspiracy theorists who claim that it was all an elaborate hoax (as, thankfully, the scientific world does), the moon landing in 1969 can be considered one of the most significant moments in 20th century history.

It’s safe to say that I’m a bit of a space nerd. I own mission patches from all of the Apollo flights, my favourite mug is emblazoned with Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz’s memorable book title “Failure is Not an Option” and I got up at 6am on a Monday morning a few weeks back to witness the Mars Curiosity rover touching down on the Red Planet.

Neil ArmstrongI recently visited the the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. where I got the chance to see the Apollo 11 command module as well as a huge selection of artefacts from the mission including spacesuits, and the Hasselblad camera used by Michael Collins to take photos of the lunar module.

In short, I would’ve loved to have been around to witness such an important moment in the history of science and exploration – my mum has always talked fondly of staying up until the small hours to watch the moon landing with my gran.

Although most well-known for his history-making role as Commander of the Apollo 11 mission and being the first human being to set foot on the moon, making him the first of only 12 men to do so, Armstrong also flew in Nasa’s previous programme, as Command Pilot of the Gemini 8, making him one of an elite band of astronauts to have flown in more than one space programme.

Second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin paid tribute to Armstong, saying:

“My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history.

“I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit”.

Neil ArmstrongLast year I wrote about the the end of the Space Shuttle programme, which was canned after 30 years to make way for the Constellation programme, in which the Americans were set to go back to non-reusable spacecraft.

Following the NASA Authorization Act 2010, this plan was ditched with Nasa not expected to launch its own spaceflights again until at least 2016. In the meantime, American astronauts will be hitching rides to the International Space Station with the Russians, for the measly sum of around $63 million per seat.

We can only hope that Nasa picks up where it left off in terms of manned spaceflight. Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s dangerous, but in the spirit of human endeavour, it would be a crime not to invest in further exploration.

While the future of spaceflight appears hesitant, one thing’s for certain – whatever “the right stuff” is, Armstrong had it.

Images: Nasa