Abandoned Soviet Space Shuttles


Just before dawn on the morning of November 15, 1988, the Energiya rocket stood fueled and ready on the launch pad at Baikonur, the Soviet Union’s launch site. Mated to the booster was the Buran space shuttle orbiter, ready for its maiden flight. It looked to strongly reminiscent of NASA’s Space Transportation System, colloquially known as the space shuttle, but the two spacecraft weren’t identical.

NASA’s decision to pursue the space shuttle on the heels of the Apollo program came down, in short, to funding. On January 5, 1972, President Nixon announced that NASA would turn its attention to building a new spacecraft to transform the final frontier, something that could shuttle astronauts between the Earth and an orbital space station, though the station would come later. The shuttle would make spaceflight routine while keeping the cost low, thanks in large part to the Department of Defence who would be sharing the cost with the space agency in exchange for using it to launch military satellites. The announcement of NASA’s shuttle plans didn’t worry the Soviet Union who didn’t have any use for a shuttle; there was no need to compete with the Americans on this program. But that began to change in the mid-1970s.

Unlike America’s national space agency NASA, the Soviet Union did not have a unified body managing its space activities. Instead, different design bureaus managed different projects.

The Soviet shuttle program officially began on February 17, 1976, a vehicle that would counteract the potential American military threat while also advancing the country’s technological and scientific standing in space. Formally called the Reusable Space System, this new spacecraft could, like its American counterpart, fly missions as short as a day and as long as a month, but unlike NASA’s shuttle the Soviet version wouldn’t replace all ongoing programs. Work would continue with the Soyuz and Salyut programs as well as the Mir space station program. Space was about to become a much busier business for the Soviet Union.

The development stage of the program wore on, and after considering a handful of different arrangements the Soviet shuttle design was frozen in June of 1979. The winged orbiter was built to nearly the same dimensions as the American spacecraft with a forward crew cabin housing six workstations, a payload bay with two manoeuvering arms, and a rear propulsion unit. It was designed to ride into orbit strapped to an external tank feeding four cryogenic engines assisted by four strap on boosters. Internally, the Soviet shuttle boasted a sophisticated avionics system that monitored all onboard functions making a cosmonaut an unnecessary part of the system.


The first launch attempt on October 29, 1988, ended with a mechanical failure; a platform next to the rocket took so long to retract that the rocket’s computer cancelled the countdown. The second attempt on November 15 was free of major technical issues, and at 8:00 in the morning local time at Baikonur Buran lifted into the sky on Energiya’s back. Eight minutes and 2.8 seconds later, Buran separated from the spent Energy core stage and fired its twin orbital manoeuvering units. A little over a half hour later, the Soviet shuttle was in a nearly circular orbit, 158 by 153 miles. An hour later, Buran’s software began its reentry and landing sequence. Battling headwinds and crosswinds, the orbiter landed one second earlier than planned.

The shakedown cruise was a technological success but the program on the whole was not. The Soviet Defense Council approved Buran to run on a scaled-down level through 2000, but when the USSR collapsed in 1991 so did the Ministry of General Machine Building that had developed the Soviet shuttle. The separate design bureaus running individual programs were transferred to the Russian ministry of the Industry, but NPO Energiya was among the bureaus that failed to cooperate in this new arrangement. When these bureaus were eventually streamlined into the national Russian Federal Space Agency in 1992, there was no provision to retain Buran-Energiya. The shuttle left homeless, and though the program was never formally cancelled, it never left the ground for a second mission. Four orbiters in various stages of completion, including one known as Ptichka (little bird) were left to languish. Buran was destroyed in 2002 when the hangar housing it collapsed.

More information can be found at http://www.popsci.com/why-soviet-space-shuttle-was-left-rot#page-13


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