The rise and fall of the Buran, the Soviet shuttle that went into space once and never came back

  • 5

Over the years we have heard many times about space shuttles. When we heard that term, we usually associated it with American reusable vehicles, including the Atlantis, which in 2011 marked the end of its kind. However, there was also the Buran (whose name means snow storm in Russian)which was intended to be the heart of the Soviet space program.

For many, this Soviet Union spacecraft was ahead of its time. On November 15, 1988, he made his first flight into space from space. Baikonur Cosmodrome (now in the hands of Kazakhstan). With no cosmonauts on board, she completed two orbits around the earth and landed at Yubileiny airfield completely autonomously. But her end came hastily. This is how this ambitious project was conceived.

Development, construction and unique flight

Development of the Buran began in the early 1975s as a response to the US space shuttle program. The Soviets suggested, according to the Rostec state corporation on its websitethat the power and size of the ships developed by NASA could be used for military purposes, with the launch of nuclear warheads and other cargo.

Consequently, the creation of the Burán had as its objective “deter the United States in the military sphere of space“. Also, the reusable vehicle would serve to put payloads into orbit and take (and also bring back) astronauts to outer space. For these purposes, five ferries were planned to be built to make about 30 annual flights.

The Soviets had already been thinking about orbital flights for years. In the 1960s they had started a project called Spiral, which included the creation of a hypersonic aircraft. That preliminary work helped speed up the development of the Burán, which was similar to the Americans outwardly, but had a number of technical differences that made it unique.


Some of the differences had to do with the location and number of engines. The ship itself did not have main engines, since these were placed on the Launch Energy rocket, however, it did have motors to put it into orbit. These could also put more payload into orbit, about 30 tons compared to 24 for the Space Shuttles.

The joint propulsion system was made up of 48 engines: 2 orbital maneuvering engines to put the device into orbit, 38 jet engines for motion control with a thrust, and 8 more engines for precision movements (precise orientation). It is estimated a crew of four people, but capable of increasing up to ten.

The history of NASA's electric motorcycle, the vehicle that came close to replacing the lunar rover of the Apollo missions

Construction of the first Buran prototype began in 1980 at the Tushino Plant. Four years later, in 1984, the ship was ready. It had a length of 34.5 meters, a wingspan of 24 meters and a height, including the landing gear, of 16.5 meters. Its weight: 105 tons, taking into account the maximum load of 30 tons.

The Soviet shuttle was already built, but moving it from the factory to the cosmodrome was a big challenge. For these purposes, the Antonov An-225, the current largest aircraft in the world, was specially developed, but it was not ready in time for that first transport. Consequently, two 3M strategic bombers were adapted, which became the Myasishchev VM-T Atlant.

The Antonov An-225, the largest aircraft in the world, was designed to carry the Buran on its back

Buran Antonov 1

Giant transport planes carried the Buran “on their backs” from Zhukovsky, where it had arrived by sea, to the Yubileiny airfield at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The space base, which is the oldest in the world, received a modernization at that time, which included a runway 4,500 meters long 84 meters wide.

Before its first orbital flight, the Burán made 24 test flights on Earth. Finally, as mentioned above, in November 1988, what many were waiting for happened. The ship, without cosmonauts and life support systems installed, took off attached to an energy rocket, circled the Earth twice and landed accompanied by a MIG-25 that portrayed the event, as shown in the video above.


That test flight met all of its objectives. The systems were shown to be reliable, mainly the automatic navigation ones, but the events that followed ended up extinguishing the project. The Burán that made the first and only space flight of the project was stored in a building in Baikonurwhose roof collapsed in 2002 destroying the ship.

A second unit, designed for the next flight, was purchased by the German museum Technik Museum Speyer, where it has been exhibited since 2008. For its part, a test unit that was not finished being built can be visited by the public in Gorky Park in Moscow. The Baikonur Cosmodrome also has a model ship on display.

Images | Roscosmos

Over the years we have heard many times about space shuttles. When we heard that term, we usually associated it…

Over the years we have heard many times about space shuttles. When we heard that term, we usually associated it…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.