Here’s what happened to the Soviet space shuttle program

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There is no denying that NASA’s US space shuttle program has been one of the space race’s greatest achievements. In fact, it is one of the finest technological achievements in the world. The space shuttle made its first launch in 1981 and was in use until 2011, when Atlantis made the last flight of the program. There was a tragedy along the way with the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and it should never be forgotten. It might surprise some, however, to learn that the Soviet Union actually had its own space shuttle program.

The Soviet space shuttle program might come as a surprise to many as it has flown only once, in unmanned flight capability, and has never been used regularly as the US shuttle. The Soviets nicknamed their orbiter Buran, and the world first knew Buran in November 1988. In some ways, the Soviet shuttle was actually better than the American shuttle. But when the Soviets realized that the NASA space shuttle would not be used for military purposes, the Russians really did not need to further develop the Buran.

The origins of the Buran

NASA’s space shuttle program had its first launch in 1981 when Columbia launched the STS-1 space mission on April 12, 1981, and three more test flights with Columbia followed in 1981 and 1982. This marked the start of the US space shuttle program. . The idea of ​​the program was to transport various satellites into space, to undertake missions to the International Space Station and much more, but under the gaze of the Soviet Union, they began to worry. They began to wonder if the Americans would use the shuttle to undertake military missions.

Buran and Energia prepare for launch

via collectSPACE

The Soviets firmly believed that America could use the shuttle as a space weapon, especially if it met its goal of 60 launches per year. The Soviets believed that a laser weapon could be sent into orbit for testing before returning to earth, or even capturing Soviet satellites. This led to the construction of Buran, the development and research of which kept a well-kept secret from the Kremlin for many years. The Soviet media was scathing when Columbia first launched in 1981, lambasting the United States for launching a military device. As you would also expect, when the Soviet Buran was first unveiled, it looked a lot like the NASA shuttle.

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Testing the Buran

Soviet Buran on the Energia rocket

via History Net

With so much unclassified information on the NASA shuttle, it was no surprise that when the world finally saw Buran, it looked very closely like the American shuttle. Unlike the TU-144, which owed its similarities to the Concorde to Soviet espionage, the Buran was almost a free copy of the shuttle. The Soviet Union just wanted the shuttle to match the capabilities of the American orbiter. However, another thing to note is that the Soviet Union already knew a thing or two about space travel and rockets.

Buran And Energia Next So Shuttle And Boosters

via Buran

This meant that the Soviets might have designed a better orbiter. The American shuttle had its own engines but needed two solid rocket thrusters to put it into orbit. The Buran, meanwhile, had no engines and simply relied on the Energia rocket to put it into orbit. It was a rocket with a central stage and four boosters. The NASA shuttle could have been more reusable, but Buran could carry 30 tons of the 29 on the shuttle, and it was lighter. In addition, Energia could be used for other space missions. Unlike rocket boosters and space shuttle fuel tanks.

Safety advances for the shuttle program

Soviet Buran ready for launch

via space

A major advantage of the Soviet Buran was that the Energia used liquid fuel propellants. This had a big advantage over the shuttle’s powder thrusters, which could not be shut off in an emergency. However, the Energia rockets could be, and the Buran had ejection seats. Only two shuttles have ever had ejection seats, and only for two crew members. The Buran system may have helped in the Challenger disaster of 1986. It was November 15, 1988 when Buran took off, and the West was massively impressed, especially with its fully automated flight system. But despite the impressive first launch, the days of the Buran were numbered.

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The collapse of the Soviet Union

Soviet Buran with Antonov AN-225 at the 1989 Paris Air Show

via folk mechanics

The Soviet Union was facing a collapse in the late 1980s and funding began to dry up for Buran. The Buran was just as expensive as the US space shuttle, but the Soviets also had disposable rockets to get into space. America had completely abandoned this concept in favor of the Shuttle. When it became apparent that the American shuttle had no military potential, the Soviet Union simply had no desire to further develop the Buran. The orbiter made an appearance at the 1989 Paris Air Show but was quickly stored in a hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. In 2002, a collapsed hangar destroyed the Buran, killed eight workers and destroyed a model of Energia.

Soviet Buran stored in Baikonur

via the Soviet afterlife

Today, only two Buran orbiters exist. None of them were used, one intended for ground use and the other 90% completed for spaceflight before the project shutdown. Both would still be stored at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. These are the only reminders that the Soviet Union ever pursued a space shuttle program, and it is certainly a great shame that the only Buran to ever take flight is not being preserved for future generations.

Sources: Flite Test, History Net, Space, Soviet Beyond, Buran, collectSPACE


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