I remember watching, tape delayed coverage, of course, the launch and subsequent landing of the only known launch of the former Soviet Space Shuttle Buran. It was kind of exciting watching the launch. To me, it signaled two things: ‘routine’ space flight was finally here and the American Shuttle was finally ‘legitimized’ by this seeming clone that the Soviets had designed, built and launched. I thought the traditional capsule and rocket style had finally died and that the more sexy science fiction style spaceship had arrived. I had no idea that this would be the only launch of Buran and that reusable spacecraft would be a fleeting blip (the US Shuttle fleet-what’s left of it-is due to retire in two years.) Buran would die a very painful and disgraceful death.
By the time the first Buran was completed and flown, the Soviet Union was in steep decline. The economy could no longer maintain things like escalating military budgets and extravagant space ventures like Buran. There were at least two complete, space worthy shuttles and two or three in various stages of construction. Additionally, there were several mock-ups used for flight worthiness testing and other uses. Several of the mock-ups have been spotted around the planet, including one in Australia and one in Gorky Park that was to be a restaurant. The Buran program cost the Soviet Union nearly 16 billion rubles and was officially cancelled in 1992. At it’s peak, nearly one million people were working in some capacity on the Buran program. It was a huge effort that, ultimately, was a tragic waste. In 2002, a hangar that housed the only Buran to have flown in space, suffered a catastrophic roof failure that resulted in eight deaths and the destruction of the shuttle.
While the Buran resembled the American orbiters, there were several differences. The most notable difference was that Buran did not have any rocket engines. It had maneuvering rockets, but no primary engines like the American shuttles. Buran was lifted into orbit by the enormous Energia rocket. Energia was one of the largest rocket to have to launched. Energia, like Buran, was also a victim of circumstance but was a bit more successful than Buran: it flew twice. Energia’s first launch was successful, but it’s payload-a satellite-failed to reach orbit due to a malfunction and the second launch was for Buran itself. That flight, by the way, remains the only remote controlled launch and landing of a re-usable craft.
It is interesting to ponder what it would be like today had Buran continued. It had a greater payload capacity than the American shuttles, so I have to wonder what the Soviet’s had in mind. How would the current Russian space program used Buran? Would the United States enlist Buran once it’s own shuttle fleet is mothballed? Indeed, there had been discussion of resurrecting the Buran program, but I would imagine that would be impossible to do now since the original, and only known functioning, has been destroyed. And, judging from the photos I have seen on the internet, most of the pieces of the Buran program are gone or scattered about the planet.
There are those who claim that the Soviets stole the American design. Maybe so, but the Delta wing is an efficient design and is one that just makes sense. Somehow, I think the Buran would have resembled what it came to be with or without the American shuttle. Of course, one could also argue that Buran never would have been designed and built without the American shuttle.
You can find more information about this remarkable space craft here:
Wikipedia entry about the shuttle program (this article has some contradictory information to other sources, including the first link.)