The life and death of Buran, the USSR shuttle built on faulty assumptions

The life and death of Buran, the USSR shuttle built on faulty assumptions

After concluding the US Shuttle was a weapons platform, the USSR wanted its own.

  by       –    Sept 23 2013, 12:00am +0300

Just before dawn on the morning of November 15, 1988, the mood at Baikonur, the Soviet Union’s launch site, was tense and businesslike. It was a cold morning marked by low cloud cover, a persistent drizzle, and warnings of gale force winds. It was a terrible day for a launch.


But on the pad stood the Energiya rocket, fueled and ready to carry the Buran space shuttle orbiter on its maiden flight. A thin layer of ice coating both vehicles threatened to postpone the event, though no one on site wanted to see the spacecraft stay on the pad. A scrubbed launch could delay Buran’s debut until the spring—or even deal a death blow to the whole program. Weighing the odds, Soviet space officials decided to take their chances. At 8:00am local time, exactly on schedule, Energiya roared to life and Buran took flight.

The next morning, half a world away in the United States, American reports on the mission focused as much on Buran’s similarity to NASA’s space shuttle as on the flight itself. The Soviet design seems indebted to NASA, newspapers proclaimed, citing experts’ opinions that there were few, if any, fundamental differences between the spacecraft. This sentiment has persisted in the general public’s mind for the nearly 30 years since Buran flew.

There’s certainly truth to reports that the Soviets copied the American shuttle, but the two vehicles aren’t identical. And while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, this wasn’t what the Soviets had in mind when they decided to build a space shuttle of their own.