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The Buran Space Shuttle : An enhanced version of the American Shuttle

The Soviet reusable space shuttle program started in response to the American Space Shuttle (STS) in 1974.

The roots of the program, however, date back to the 1950’s, with the goal of developing a vehicle capable of rapidly launching nuclear weapons for the Red Army.

A first vehicle named Burya, which was more of a drone/cruise missile capable of carrying and delivering a nuclear payload, was developed but the program was later canceled with the rise of ICMB’s (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).

Buran lifting of from the pad on it’s inaugural flight ©Roscosmos


The Shuttle was seen as a great military asset by the Soviet Government and was planned to be used for intelligence, defense missions, satellite maintenance operations, recovery of defective equipment from space or even large structure assembly in earth orbit.

While the usage planned for the spacecraft was the opposite of its American sister, the internal configuration of the two shuttles was very similar to each other.


Side by side comparison of the STS (left) and Buran-Energuia (right)

Like the American Shuttle, Buran was built like a plane using a delta wing design with variable sweep leading edges. It was roughly the same dimensions and the same lift off weight.

Buran was devoid of engines, unlike the space shuttle which used three RS-25’s for the ascent which reduced the complexity of the spacecraft and increased reliability.

The heavy lift rockets aimed at launching the shuttles used the same launch configuration, with the spacecrafts attached to the belly of the main tank

and rocket boosters attached around

the tank (two boosters on the STS and

four on Buran-Energuia).

While the Soviets used a LOX-RP1 (Liquid) mixture to power Energuia’s 8 RD-170 engines, providing better safety to the system because the engines could be turned off if a problem happened, American engineers used two SRB’s (Solid Rocket Booster) powered by a mixture of PBAN-APCP (Polybutadiene Acrylonitrile - Ammonium Perchlorate) that once ignited, couldn’t be shut down.

In addition to the two boosters, the STS was equipped with 3 LOX-LH2 engines strapped to the back of the shuttle and fed in propellant by the main tank adding complexity to the orbiter.

For the two shuttles, the design consisted of a huge payload bay sealed by two doors. Those doors acted as a cooling system (radiator) when open in space. Both payload bays featured a robotic arm to manipulate objects. Four elevons and a rudder were used for the control of the atmospheric descent to the runway after reentry. Buran had in addition a pressurized laboratory module in the payload bay like ESA’s Spacelab design.

Both spacecraft also featured engine optimized for space, like the OMS Pod (Orbital Maneuvering System) installed at the back of the American spacecraft and 44 RCS

thrusters (Reaction Control System) for attitude Control.

And for Buran, a set of two engines that used Oxygen and Kerosene for orbital maneuvers and 46 RCS thruster divided in three blocks providing greater reliability than the space shuttle if a thruster malfunction.


A view of the left rear RCS thrusters section (left picture) and the space optimized engines (right picture)


One of the biggest improvements on Buran was the automatic launch and

landing system. Unlike the Space Shuttle, which required a human hand to fly in space, reenter earth’s atmosphere and land, the Soviet shuttle could be controlled by a pilot but also by a computer which could fly and land the spacecraft automatically even in high winds.

It also featured ejection seats for the crew and an emergency return software that could have avoided the loss of the crew in case of a Challenger-like event during ascent.

Buran had a great heat shield design composed of 38000 heat resistant tiles and was designed to fly at least 100 times before being decommissioned.

The orbiter took off for the first and only time on the 15 of November 1988 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The automated launch sequence performed as expected and Buran arrived safely in earth’s orbit.

After completing two orbits around the planet, the automatic landing system engaged and the spacecraft touched the ground roughly four hours after liftoff under high crosswind, making history as the first shuttle to automatically launch into space and land back on earth.

Buran landing on the runway after completing 2 revolutions around earth on it’s inaugural flight ©Roscosmos

Unfortunately for the program, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to insufficient subventions that doomed the orbiter.

The Buran Space Shuttle was a marvelous piece of engineering, providing better security and reliability than its American sister and could have made a significant difference in the Soviet Space program.

Until recently, the different Soviet shuttle models were stored in an abandoned hangar in Kazakhstan, but it collapsed, destroying everything left of Buran, damaging a valuable piece of history.

Buran stored in its abandoned hangar in Kazakhstan ©Alexander Kaunas


Cover Image : ©Roscosmos

Pierre BARON

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