Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle 25 Years On

The fact that the old Soviet Union had its own space shuttle program is little known 25 years later. However, in late 1988, the Soviets test flew an unmanned version of the Buran, a name that means “snowstorm” in Russian.

NASASpaceFlight.com relates the development history of the Buran, laden with technical problems and delays, its single flight, and its ignominious end as the Soviet Union ended. Buran was conceived from the beginning as a competitor to the American space shuttle. But unlike the shuttle, it would be used primarily as a military asset, launching and presumably servicing military satellites.

According to a history of the Buran on the Russian Space Web, the Soviet shuttle had similar capabilities to the American version. It could carry 30 tons to low Earth orbit and would have a crew of between two and 10 cosmonauts. It was designed to operate in space from seven to 30 days.

There were some differences between the Buran and the American shuttle. The Buran was launched by a heavy lift Energia rocket with four strap on solid rocket boosters on it. The shuttle had its own engines with an external tank and two strap on SRBs. The Buran’s engines were for maneuvering in orbit.

The Buran program was scrapped in 1993 by the Boris Yeltsin government of the Russian Federation. Since that time Russian has depended on its venerable but serviceable Soyuz space capsules to take people to and from space. Ironically Americans have to also rely on taking rides on the Soyuz, in the wake of the end of the American space shuttle program, pending the arrival of publically funded, privately operated space craft.

If the Soviet Union had not fallen or if its fall had not been accompanied by economic distress, it is possible that the Buran could have been made to work and it would be the current workhorse of Russian space operations. The single test flight of the Buran was judged successful, though the vehicle suffered enough damage on landing that it needed extensive repairs.

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