I feel bad for the Russians. First satellite in space. First human in space. First long-term habitable space-station in orbit, but they never made it to the moon, and their space programme is currently stuck in the seventies.
That’s not entirely fair, their Soyuz programme works, and that’s why it’s still running. When NASA was unveiling the space shuttle programme, the Russians had already decided they wanted a piece of the action. Fears that the shuttle would be used to test laser weapons on-orbit, and even that it could dive back into the atmosphere and bomb Russia (the final design is far from capable of this) drove them to pursue a similar programme.
Actually, it was basically the same programme:
There are a few differences: Buran was better. It had an enhanced heat shield that was expected to be cheaper to maintain than the American design (which requires an unanticipated amount of repair after each mission), and a more computerised design.
One other key difference is in the engines. The Russians basically strapped Buran onto a giant Energia rocket to lift it into space. Once in orbit, Buran had small engines to help in maneuver and de-orbit. These engines are known as the Reaction Control System (RCS). The shuttle had this too, as do most space vehicles. However, the shuttle also had it’s main lifting engines integrated into the design. The huge orange fuel tank is used to power these engines, meaning that when the tank is jettisoned after launch, these engines are useless, and just take up weight on the shuttle. The Americans wanted to save costs. The space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) are a pretty nifty piece of design: they can be throttled up and down, so that in the event of a problem during launch, the shuttle can be safely moved onto an abort trajectory, as well as providing general flexibility during launch, should it be required. And they don’t get jettisoned. Energia, by contrast, was all-on, all the time. Until it ran out of fuel, and then it was dumped. They sacrificed flexibility for a lighter design, which made landing easier.
Buran also did one thing that the US shuttle could never, and has never, achieved: a test flight that didn’t risk any lives. The first four US shuttle missions were manned flights, and marked the first time that the shuttle had even been into space. By comparison, Buran’s test flight into space was entirely computer controlled, including the landing. There wasn’t any functioning life-support on board, it was a completely unmanned flight, and completely successful.
Here’s a video showing Buran landing form in-atmosphere test flights (you can tell by the jet engines bolted on the side: Buran’s tests had the vehicle take off from a runway, and then glide-land, unlike the US practice of lofting the shuttles on a 747, and releasing them in the air to begin their glide). The last part of the video shows the footage of the launch and automated landing. The Russians didn’t originally release the launch footage, but relented amid claims that the landing was just part of a regular test-glide.
Sadly, that’s where Buran’s story ends. A second test flight never materialised. Only one Buran orbiter was ever completed, and this was it’s end:
A hanger collapse that tragically claimed 8 lives also crushed the orbiter. A sad end for what could have been a very interesting space programme. Would we still have an ISS? Would it have been built more quickly?
We’ll never know. It seems like the age of reusable spacecraft has come and gone for now.
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