History In The Headlines

The Lone Soviet Space Shuttle Launch, 25 Years Ago

By Christopher Klein
In the early morning hours of November 15, 1988, the desert land beneath Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome began to rumble. Moments later, a huge column of red flame ignited the darkness as the gleaming black-and-white Buran reusable spacecraft, the Soviet version of the American space shuttle, thundered into the heavens.
Launch of Buran space shuttle on November 15, 1963. (Credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Launch of Buran space shuttle on November 15, 1963. (Credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

The launch of Buran (Russian for “snowstorm”) from the same patch of central Asia from which Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin rocketed into space marked a new milestone in the Soviet space program. The first test flight of the Soviet space shuttle came nearly 15 years after the U.S.S.R. began development of its reusable winged vehicle program in the early 1970s. Although the Soviets had criticized the American space shuttle as a waste of money, the country’s military worried that the vehicle being developed by NASA could be used as a “space bomber.” Those fears drove the Soviets to spend tens of billions of dollars to develop a similar reusable spacecraft to the Americans. Outside of keeping up with its rival and docking occasionally with the orbiting Mir space station, however, there was little scientific rationale for the program.

When the first official photographs of Buran were released in September 1988, the spacecraft looked very familiar. Except for the CCCP inscription and Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag decorating the wings, Buran appeared virtually identical in shape and size to the American space shuttle, right down to its paint job. And that was far from a coincidence. Aided by the unclassified status of the technology used to design the American space shuttle, the KGB spy agency collected detailed plans that allowed the Soviets to save years and billions of dollars in developing its own version of the spacecraft.

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. Nearly all the propulsion necessary to launch Buran into space came from the world’s most powerful booster rocket, the massive 20-story-tall Energia that was designed to launch both shuttles and other cargo spacecraft.

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 150 miles before it re-entered the atmosphere and was escorted by MIG-25 fighter jets as it glided to a flawless landing at the spaceport from which it had blasted off three hours and 25 minutes before. Fur-hatted engineers celebrated their achievement in landing an orbiting space shuttle automatically for the first time, and upon inspection it was found that only five of the vehicle’s nearly 40,000 heat-shielding ceramic tiles were missing.

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 32-month hiatus following the 1986 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.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev hailed the Buran mission as “one more confirmation of the kind of huge possibilities the Soviet Union has to solve any problem.” However, chronic economic problems had already begun to cripple the government and in the era of glasnost ushered in by Gorbachev, Soviets began to voice unusually harsh criticism of the country’s massive space program budget. Cutbacks forced future missions of Buran to be put on hold, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, funding for the space program crumbled with it. Russia officially cancelled the Buran program in 1993 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.

While some of the Soviet space shuttle vehicles were dismantled, versions of the spacecraft are on display at the Baikonur Cosmodrome’s museum and at a technology museum in Speyer, Germany. Another prototype became an amusement park attraction at Moscow’s Gorky Park. 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 2002, the hangar roof collapsed and Buran lay crushed beneath the rubble.

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Categories: Soviet Union, Space