Was The Soviet Buran Better Than The American Shuttle?

Buran meaning “Snowstorm” or “Blizzard” was the first soviet shuttle to be produced as part of the Soviet/Russian Buran programme.

Looking very much like the American Space Shuttle, thirty two years ago, on 15 November 1988, the first Soviet reusable spacecraft ‘Buran’ made its debut.

It was lifted into space by the specially designed Energia rocket, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome  launch pad 110/37. After two orbits around the Earth, ‘Buran’ then landed hozizontally on a runway back at its launch site.

What made this flight even more remarkable was that it was done without any crew members aboard, a first for a shuttle of any super power.

‘Buran’ had lost only eight of its 38,000 thermal tiles over the course of its flight.

In 1989, it was projected that ‘Buran’ would have a second uncrewed flight of 15 to 20 days by 1993.  

A new era of reusable spacecraft

The U.S. space shuttle program was born in the 1970s when a new breed of reusable spacecraft, able not only to go into space, but successfully return as well were designed and built.

The Americans believed that reusable spacecraft could undertake more flights often and at a far lower cost. But history showed that they were completely wrong. Each flight by the shuttle cost a colossal $1.5 billion, which eventually caused the project to fold in 2011.

But in the 1970-80s, the shuttle was seen as a new breakthrough in space exploration.

The Soviet leadership assigned the task to its engineers “to make an American-style craft,” as this process had worked before and saved a lot of time and money, and besides, they believed that they could do better from their previous trials and error.

Seven years after the first American shuttle Columbia was launched in 1981, the Soviet ‘Buran’ made its first legendary flight.

The first operational Soviet shuttle orbiter, ‘Buran’ was also the designation for the entire Soviet spaceplane project and its orbiters, which were known as ‘Buran-Class Orbiters’.

Both remaining Buran’s rotting away in a forgotten hangar.

Better or not

Although the Buran looked like the American shuttle, the resemblance was the only thing they had in common. Designed several years later than its American counterpart, the Soviet spacecraft took the mistakes of its predecessor into account and was in fact more advanced:

  • Buran could be in orbit twice as long as the shuttle. Instead of 15 to 17 days, it could stay in space up to 30 days.
  • It could also lift 30 tons of cargo, against the American’s 24 tons.
  • Ten Soviet cosmonauts could squeeze inside Buran, compared to seven U.S. astronauts on the shuttle.
  • Buran was able to fly and land in automatic mode.

Costs

Although a true technical breakthrough, it was too expensive for the Soviet Union, costing over 16 billion rubles. The project almost made the country bankrupt. Its cost was so high that an entire city for 10 million residents could have been built instead.

In the end, it was much cheaper to use disposable Proton and Soyuz carrier rockets.

 “The reusable spacecraft turned out to be not so reusable. After the flight it was full of cracks, and the engines needed a major overhaul,”  said Stanislav Aksyonov, the project participant.

Five Buran vehicles were constructed, but only two were preserved, today kept in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Space Bomber

The idea to develop Buran as a space bomber was also abandoned due to the easing of the strained Soviet-American relations in the late 1980s.

The End

The first flight of Buran was also its last. The project was frozen in 1990 and officially closed. On 12 May 2002, it was buried under the crushed roof of a hangar at the Baikonur spaceport. The promising ‘Soviet shuttle,’ the last grandiose Soviet project, was abandoned.

Today the last two Buran’s lie forgotten and rotting away .

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