On November 15, 1988, the first and only Soviet “Buran” space shuttle was launched, making headlines across all the Soviet newspapers.
However, it was criticized by many as a useless and costly project which had no future. Questions arose as to why the shuttle did not resume its triumphant mission as a state-of-the-art Soviet miracle. Instead, it was left for dead and forgotten.
The work on the construction of the spacecraft started as early as the mid-1970s, after the United States had notoriously emphasized the importance of the militarization of space. The Soviets knew the American shuttle construction was in progress, and the Soviet defense counsel ruled that, with the shuttle at their disposal, the Americans could get a serious advantage in the military sphere. To maintain the country’s security, it was something the Soviet Union could not allow and had to respond with technology of the same scale. Also, by building the shuttle, the Soviet authorities hoped to regain the country’s position as the leading space power.
As the decision to build the shuttle was immediate and unconditional, a major row arose concerning its reusability. Many scientists thought the craft was a useless waste of money, since reusable systems proved to be very costly. The launch of the American shuttle alone was worth over $800 million.
There were also disputes as to whether to have the shuttle manned or operated automatically. These doubts were solved, however, once the shuttle was launched. The precision with which it landed without any human involvement was amazing. Buran, landing in windy conditions, managed to reconfigure its landing trajectory and define the best way to land with maximum precision.
Buran was almost 56 feet tall (approximately 17 meters) standing on its undercarriage and about 118 feet long, with a wingspan of approximately 80 feet. Twenty-six feet in diameter, it weighed about 100 tons, 14 tons of which was taken up by fuel. Buran had a unique thermal shield, which allowed it a safe reentry. Buran, though resembling its American predecessor on the exterior, had several major differences.
Unlike the American shuttle, Buran was capable of performing an automatic landing. Also, the carrier rocket for Buran could be used for carrying any other cargo up to 100 tons, while the American one could only be used for its direct purpose. In the course of Buran’s construction, 600 new additional technologies were employed, and to this day, half of them are used successfully in different spheres.
The decision to shut the Buran project down was made in 1992, as the country’s material resources were exhausted and it could no longer afford the high maintenance costs. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, only 10-30% of the total funding was allocated. All the scientists involved in the process were terrified to learn that such a promising project was being shut down, but they had no say in the matter. The total cost of the program was about seven billion dollars.
Originally there were two shuttles ready in functional condition. After the first Buran completed its mission, the second one, already linked up to the carrier-rocket, was in the ready position to dock with the Mir space station, while three more were still in construction. The only shuttle which had actually flown rested on one of the Baikonur launch pad sheds until 2002, when the shed’s roof collapsed and destroyed it. The second one was remodeled and is now exhibited in the Baikonur space museum. The third one, already significantly enhanced, was not completed and remained in the construction plant. There were also seven life-sized mockups designed for testing, though were too expensive to maintain. One of the mockups was placed as an attraction in the Gorky amusement park in Moscow in 1995, and in 2000 was transported to Sydney to entertain at the Olympic Games, and was later purchased by a millionaire in Bahrain. In 2008 it was sold to the German space museum, where a special 22-meter high exhibition hall was built.