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Buran - the Soviet 'space shuttle'

By Anatoly Zak

Buran (AFP)
Despite its looks, Buran was not a facsimile of the US shuttle

Some 20 years ago, on 30 September 1988, many readers of the Pravda newspaper - the official mouthpiece of the Soviet communist party - could not believe their eyes.

Published somewhat inconspicuously on the second page, there was a photo depicting the familiar shape of the US space shuttle, but with Soviet insignia on its wings.

Finally, years of rumours about a Soviet "copy" of the shuttle had been confirmed.

However, the official Soviet press was quick to point out that despite its superficial resemblance to the US counterpart, the Russian shuttle, dubbed Buran or "snowstorm", was better and more capable.

Within days, the new ship got a chance to prove it.

On November 15, 1988, as snowy clouds and winds were swirling around Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Buran orbiter, attached to its giant Energia rocket, thundered into the gloomy early morning sky.

They obliterated this crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme
Three hours and two orbits later, the 100-tonne bird glided back to a flawless landing just a few miles from its launch pad.

Despite the kind of strong winds that would rule out any launch or landing attempt by the US space shuttle, Buran touched down just 3m off the runway centreline.

And this planet-wide ballet was performed with its "pilots" safely on the ground.

Born of paranoia

Buran's pioneering mission was the culmination of an effort by more than 600 Soviet institutions which, since 1976, had secretly laboured on this largest of Soviet space projects.

Upon the spacecraft's triumphant landing, the Soviet newspapers promised a new era in space exploration. Few could predict at the time that it would be Buran's only mission.

Unlike Nasa, Soviet developers never had any grand illusions about replacing traditional rockets with a reusable space truck.

Instead, the Soviet shuttle was conceived primarily as a "symmetrical response" to the perceived military threat from America's winged orbiters.

Buran site
A fully assembled Energia rocket with the first flown Buran orbiter, in 2002

Years after a sceptical Pentagon had given up on the shuttle, even as a delivery truck for spy satellites, the Russian officials continued whispering to journalists that the US orbiter had a secret capability - to make an undetected "dive" into the Earth's atmosphere and suddenly glide over Moscow dropping nuclear bombs.

Never mind that such a scenario was not supported by physics or by common sense.

Energia-Buran's chief architect, Valentin Glushko, hardly tried to educate warmongers at the Politburo about the questionable merits of the re-usable orbiter as a weapon.

Glushko was one of the first generation of Soviet rocket pioneers, who were experimenting in the 1930s under the tutelage of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky - one of the "fathers" of spaceflight. Like many of his contemporaries, he had little interest in designing weapons.

He did dream, however, about building a permanent base on the surface of the Moon.

Unfortunately, after losing the Moon race to America in 1969, Soviet leaders had little appetite for another deep-space adventure.

Launch pad
The launch and test facility where the Energia rocket first took off in 1987

Still, Glushko probably hoped to exploit Cold War paranoia about the threat of the US shuttle as an opportunity to lay a detour road to the Moon, and possibly even to Mars.

Glushko carefully steered the Soviet shuttle project away from being a carbon copy of the American design, which could not be easily modified.

Instead, he proposed a winged orbiter along with a fully functional rocket which could carry any cargo - including lunar landers, orbital tugs and even pieces of a Martian expeditionary complex.

In the end, Kremlin bosses had committed to the monumental expense of money and human talent with only vague hopes that real tasks for the grandiose vehicle would emerge as it came online.

Instead, after long delays and cost overruns, the Buran appeared on the scene in the last act of the Cold War and amid a crumbling Soviet economy.

The Berlin Wall had come down just a year after its first flight, and the Soviet Defence Ministry was suddenly more preoccupied with resettling thousands of troops returning from Eastern Europe than with servicing orbital anti-missile platforms and deploying killer satellites in space.

Energia site
The first stage of the Energia rocket inside Building 112 in Baikonur

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 sealed the fate of the Energia-Buran system.

There was a flicker of hope for Buran's giant booster - Energia - when Russia joined the effort to build the International Space Station (ISS).

Still unfinished today, after a decade of efforts and dozens of assembly flights, the ISS could have been hauled into orbit by only a few Energia boosters, had international partners adopted it into the program, say the rocket's proponents.

In the mid-1990s, a flight-ready Buran orbiter, which made the historic trip in 1988, had been mounted on the back of a fully assembled Energia rocket at Baikonur's Building 112.

This eye-popping display became a popular stop for journalists and foreign tourists, who periodically "invaded" Baikonur for high-profile launches.

To the untrained eye, the gargantuan rocket and its orbiter looked all but ready for a rollout to the launch pad.

Last resting place

In 2001, this spectacle, combined with the optimistic and mis-translated comments of a Russian guide, had such a profound effect on one Western reporter that he filed a story claiming that the Energia-Buran programme was about to be re-started.

The article proved that a decade after its demise, the Buran had already become a legend.

However, if one looked closely in Building 112 it was possible to see water dripping from the high ceiling on a rainy day and accumulating on the floor, under the dead torsos of Energia rockets.

The keeper of the facility, who showed reporters around the building, said that he could hardly find money to send repair men to patch up the giant roof.

Interior of N-1 hangar at Baikonur
Rescue workers search the devastated hangar at Baikonur

Eventually, a repair team, believed to include eight people, did make it to the roof, climbing on top of Building 112 on May 12, 2002.

According to eyewitnesses, at about 0920 local time, the entire structure shook violently, as if hit by an earthquake, and enormous pieces of debris plunged dozens of metres to the ground below.

They obliterated this crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme.

But the Energia-Buran programme did leave a lasting legacy.

The cavernous launch facilities at Baikonur and a state-of-the-art mission control centre in Korolev have continued serving the Russian space programme and its international partners.

The rocket technology developed for Energia-Buran has been put to use in other launchers.

A mighty RD-170 engine, originally developed for the first stage of Energia, today powers the Ukrainian Zenit rocket.

This engine's scaled-down descendants - the RD-180 and RD-190 - have been adopted for the US Atlas booster and Russia's next-generation Angara rockets.

While the US space shuttle will soon share the fate of the Buran orbiter - as a museum exhibit - emerging plans for lunar exploration have revived concepts of super-heavy rockets, on both sides of the Atlantic.

If they are ever built, their creators will have to re-trace the path once made by Valentin Glushko and his colleagues.

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