• Aeryn Avilla

Snowstorm: The Rise and Fall of the USSR's Buran

Updated: May 31

Buran ("Snowstorm" or "Blizzard") was a Soviet spaceplane and spaceplane program. It was also known as the VKK Space Orbiter program, in which VKK is the Russian acronym for Air Space Ship. It was a reusable spacecraft project that began in 1974 as a response to the American Space Transportation System, or Space Shuttle program. It was officially terminated in 1993 as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union two years earlier. Buran was the name of both the program the first orbiter, Orbiter K1, the only reusable Soviet spacecraft launched into space. Therefore, the other proposed orbiters are called Buran-class. For clarification purposes, the name of the spacecraft itself will be italicized while the name of the program will not. Additionally, "Shuttle" will refer to the Space Shuttle.


Soviet spaceplane Buran on pad before launch

Buran before launch (space.com)


The Buran program began as a response to the American Space Shuttle Program and was the largest and most expensive project in the history of Soviet space exploration. The idea of a reusable spacecraft program has its roots in the late 1950's at the beginning of the Space Age but no real efforts were made until the 1970's and 80's. The first iteration of what would be Buran was the Burya, a high altitude jet aircraft that was flown several times before cancellation. It had the goal of delivering a nuclear payload before returning back to Russia. Its cancellation was based on the decision to develop ICBMs instead. The Soviet military was concerned that the American Shuttle could be used for military purposes due to its large payload capacity. Buran was officially designed to deliver spacecraft, cosmonauts, and supplies to Earth orbit as well as bring them back. Chief Designer of the Energia rocket Gleb Lozino-Lozinkiy claimed that from the beginning the program was military in nature but the exact intended military capabilities of the craft remain classified. To ensure public support for Buran, its purpose was to boost national pride, carry out research, and meet technical objectives similar to that of the Space Shuttle. This also included space station Mir resupply missions.


Soviet engineers were hesitant in designing a spacecraft that looked superficially like the American shuttle but wind tunnel testing showed NASA's design really was the best. The KGB helped the VPK, the USSR's Military-Industrial Commission, gather data on the Shuttle and actually targeted university research project documents and databases. This was partly possible because Shuttle development was unclassified as it was part of a civilian program.


Construction of the Buran began in 1980 and the first full-scale orbiter was rolled out in 1984. The BOR-5 was a flight test vehicle that was used to test the aerodynamic, thermal, acoustic, and stability characteristics of Buran. It performed multiple sub-orbital flights from July 1984 to 1988. It had jet engines mounted on its back that were used for take-off from a normal landing strip. Once it reached a designated point during the flight, the engines were cut and the craft glided back to land. This was very different from the way the gliding method was tested during the Space Shuttle program, in which the test orbiter Enterprise was mounted atop a Boeing 747, taken to a launch altitude, then separated to glide back to land.


Soviet space shuttle Buran on the launch pad
Buran on the launch pad (Discover Magazine)

Five orbiters were supposed to be constructed for the program but only one was completed with two still under construction when the program ended. These two second Buran-class orbiters, informally called Ptchika ("Little Bird") and Buria ("Storm"), were due in 1990 and 1992. Ptchika was scheduled to perform the first fully regular Buran-class orbiter operation (the first Buran did not have regular thermal control and power systems). Buria was to have a remote manipulator and docking system. The orbital test flight for Ptchika was split into two missions with a space station approach test being the bulk of the second. Delays in preparation caused the flight plans to change and now the orbiter had to perform everything in one maiden flight scheduled for December 1991. She was 95-97% complete and Buria was about 50% complete by the time the program was terminated. As for the other two orbiters, one was disassembled and sold online while the parts of the other, which was never assembled, were distributed to other places and companies. Ptchika's flight would have consisted of an unmanned launch, automatic docking with the Mir space station, crew transfer from Mir to the spaceplane for 24 hour onboard testing and remote manipulator testing. The process would be repeated for docking with a crewed Soyuz TM spacecraft.


Buran was launched on an Energia rocket, a class of super heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Unlike the Space Shuttle, which was propelled by a combination of 2 solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and the Orbiter's own liquid propellant, Buran used only the thrust from the Energia. The spacecraft weighed 62 tons and had a maximum payload capacity of 30 tons for a total lift-off weight of 92 tons. Buran was 119.3 feet (36.37 m) long with a wingspan of 78.5 feet (23.92 m)— a mere 3 feet shorter than the American Shuttle. Energia had a height of 192.80 feet (58.8 m) and a diameter of 57.9 feet (17.7 m). It could take 220,000 pounds (100,000 kg) into low Earth orbit. Only two launches of the Energia took place— the first carried Polyus, a prototype orbital weapons platform.


Soviet spaceplane Buran launch

Launch of Buran with a nice view of the Energia (buran.ru)


Similar to the Space Shuttle, when in transit from the landing site to the launch site, Buran was transported on the back of the Antonov An-225— the largest aircraft in the world to fly multiple times. It was also partially designed for the specific task of piggybacking the orbiter.


Despite being nearly identical on the outside, Buran and the Shuttle had a number of differences.

  • Buran had no main engines— its take off and ascent trajectory were accomplished by the Energia

  • The core Energia was equipped with its own guidance, navigation, and control system. The Shuttle's control system was located in the orbiter since the external fuel tank (ET) was just that— a tank

  • The Energia could be used to launch other payloads into space because it itself is a rocket. It was not a system like the Shuttle (hence the name Space Transportation System)

  • The Energia was a liquid fuel rocket (kerosene/oxygen) while the SRBs were solid

  • The Energia was not covered in foam, the shedding of which led to the destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003

  • The Energia's boosters were designed to be recovered but actually never were

  • Buran's equivalent of the Space Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) was less toxic and performed higher

  • Buran could fly both autonomously and piloted. The Shuttle was later retrofitted with automated landing capability and first flew on STS-121 but was only to be used in contingencies

  • Buran's nose gear was located much farther back on the fuselage

  • Buran could lift 30 metric tons of payload while the Shuttle could lift 27.8

  • Buran included a drag chute while the Shuttle did not initially (one was installed later on)

  • Buran and Energia were transported to the launch pad horizontally on a rail transporter then erected and fueled at the launch site. Shuttle was transported vertically on a crawler-transporter with loaded SRBs and the ET was fueled at the launch site

  • Buran was intended to carry a crew of up to 10. Shuttle carried an average of 7


Buran program patch
Buran program patch (spacepatches.nl)

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, seven cosmonauts were designated to the Buran program and trained on the OK-GLI "Buran aerodynamic analogue" test vehicle. These seven were Ivan Bachurin, Alexei Borodai, Anatoli Levchenko, Aleksandr Shchukin, Rimantas Stankevičius, Igor Volk, and Viktor Zabolotsky. As a result of the failed Soyuz 25 mission in 1977 [1], a rule was set in place that required all Soviet space missions to have at least one crew member who had been to space before. Only 2 potential Buran pilots ever reached space; Igor Volk and Anatoli Levchenko. Volk flew Soyuz T-12 in 1984 and provided Volk with the experience needed to fly Buran. It also included the first woman EVA performed by Svetlana Savitskaya. At the time, the Buran program was still a state secret. Levchenko flew Soyuz TM-4 to the Mir Space Station in December 1987. Volk was planned to be the commander of the first crewed flight of Buran with Levchenko as his backup. However, when Levchenko died of a brain tumor in 1988, it left the back-up crew without space experience. Another Soyuz flight with the potential to produce a backup commander was sought but never happened. Bachurin wound up leaving the cosmonaut corps due to medical reasons. Shchukin served as backup for Soyuz TM-4 but died in a plane crash. Stankevičius was also killed in a plane crash during an air show. Borodai and Zabolotsky both remained unassigned to a flight until the Buran program ended.


The maintenance, launches, and landings of Buran-class orbiters took place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Several facilities were modified and built for the Buran program. Site 110 supported the launch of orbiters and was originally constructed for the Soviet lunar landing program. It saw the disastrous failures of the N1 moon rocket before being coverted for Energia-Buran. Site 112 was used for orbiter maintenance and to mate orbiters to their Energia boosters. It was similar to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and was originally built for the assembly of the N1. It was here that Orbiter K1 was stored and eventually destroyed. Site 251, also known as Yubileyniy Airfield, was the landing facility and the equivalent to the Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC. It was approximately 2.8 miles (4.5 km) long and 92 yards (84 m) wide. At the end was a mating-demating device designed to lift the orbiter off its Mriya carrier and load it on a transporter to be carried back to the processing building at Site 254. It is now used as a commercial cargo airport. Site 254 serviced the orbiters between flights and was similar to the Orbiter Processing Facility at KSC. It had 4 bays and numerous test rooms. It is now used for pre-launch operations of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.


Only one orbital flight of the Buran program ever took place. On November 15, 1988, OK-1 Buran launched from pad 110/37 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on an unmanned mission. The mission is designated 1K1; first orbiter, first flight. Unlike the American launches, the entire mission was completely automatic and had no life support system. It lasted 3 hours and 25 minutes. After 2 orbits around the Earth, Buran landed at Site 251 and its wheels stopped 206 minutes after launch. During the flight, it lost only 8 of its 38,000 thermal times.


In June of 1989, Buran was carried on the back of the An-225 and taken to the Paris Air Show. Afterwards, it was stored in the hangar at Site 112 with a mockup Energia. The Buran program was officially terminated on June 30, 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin and had cost the USSR 20 billion rubles. Buran and the mock Energia were destroyed on May 12, 2002 when the hangar they were housed in collapsed as a result of structural failure due to poor maintenance. The incident also killed eight workers. Ptchika and Buria still reside in their own hangar, enduring dust, extreme temperature, and bird droppings.


Soviet spaceplanes in hangar

The two remaining Buran-class orbiters (CNN)


There were a few attempts to resurrect the program over the past nearly 20 years. The first was after the Columbia disaster in 2003 when the Space Shuttle was grounded. However, left over equipment from Buran could not be feasibly salvaged. Similarly, when the Shuttle retired in 2011 the US and Russia collaborated to develop a way to revive already existing Buran spacecraft rather than spend money on entirely new craft to be developed, which also would take a significant amount of time.



[1] Both cosmonauts of Soyuz 25 were rookies. The mission was supposed to dock to the new Salyut 6 space station but was aborted when the crew failed to engage the docking latches of the station and the craft did not have sufficient fuel to attempt to dock to the other end. It was a serious blow to the Soviet Union, whose media gave the flight a high profile because it launched from the same pad as Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1. It also coincided with the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution.


Author's note: Thanks for reading and remember to like and share this post or drop a comment if you like! It breaks my heart knowing OK-1 is destroyed.



Bibliography

  • Day, Dwayne A, and Bart Hendrickx. “Target Moscow (Part 2): The American Space Shuttle and the Decision to Build the Soviet Buran.” The Space Review: Target Moscow (Part 2): The American Space Shuttle and the Decision to Build the Soviet Buran, 3 Feb. 2020, www.thespacereview.com/article/3876/1.

  • Howell, Elizabeth. “Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle.” Space.com, Space, 21 Apr. 2015, www.space.com/29159-buran-soviet-shuttle.html.

  • Prisco, Jacopo. “Two Abandoned Soviet Space Shuttles Left in the Kazakh Steppe.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Nov. 2017, edition.cnn.com/style/article/baikonur-buran-soviet-space-shuttle/index.html.

  • Zak, Anatoly. “Buran Reusable Orbiter.” Buran Reusable Shuttle, 28 Oct. 2019, www.russianspaceweb.com/buran.html.

  • “Buran.” Buran Space Shuttle vs STS - Comparison, www.buran.su/buranvssts-comparison.php.

  • “Buran Orbiter.” NPO MOLNIYA, www.buran.ru/htm/molniya.htm.

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