Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 21:39 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 21:39 | SYDNEY

The Other Space Shuttle

5 July 2011 14:46

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer.

As the US Space Shuttle program comes to an end this Friday, it's worth reflecting on its little-known twin on the other side of the space race. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union began development on its own space shuttle, dubbed 'Buran' or 'Snowstorm'.

This was a winged spaceplane of roughly the same size and shape as the famous American orbiter. It was strapped to the side of a large new rocket called 'Energiya'. Examined from a distance, Buran looked strikingly similar at launch to the American shuttle. Buran was a tightly classified project for several years.

The Soviets denied its very existence, despite the fact that it had been observed on runways by US spy satellites and described in the National Geographic magazine.

Buran was unveiled to the world in 1988, shortly before the US Space Shuttle made its first return to flight after the loss of the Shuttle Challenger in 1986. The project seemed to pose an ambitious challenge to the US space program, which seemed to be losing its pace.

In reality, the program was a disaster. Buran made only one flight in space. It was launched in an unmanned mode in November 1988, and later glided to an automated runway landing. The cost of developing Buran strained an already-weakened Soviet economy, and the project was mothballed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Later, a prototype Buran that had not actually flown in space was exhibited to the public in Sydney for a few months. The final insult to the program came in 2002, when a hangar holding the only space-flown vehicle collapsed, destroying the shuttle.

Why was Buran developed? Paranoia.

Soviet analysts were concerned that the US Shuttle would be used for military purposes such as dropping bombs on Soviet territory from space. The construction of a second launch pad for the Shuttle in California would have allowed the US Shuttle to fly in 'polar' orbits that would have quickly taken them over the USSR. Whatever the truth, in true Cold War style, the US device needed a Soviet equivalent for parity.

In reality, the US Shuttle was used for many military missions, mostly involving launching spy satellites, but nothing that happened really matched Soviet fears. The California launch pad was never used for a shuttle launch.

The Soviet Union never stopped development of their simple-but-robust Soyuz capsule spacecraft while they worked on Buran. Today, Soyuz is the only spacecraft capable of carrying replacement crews to the Internartional Space Station. America has retired its shuttles before a replacement vehicle is ready.

Nobody wants to resurrect Buran for this purpose!

Photo of the Buran by Flickr user Stephan A.