Lost Opportunities of The USSR – The Buran Program

Soviet Buran Space Shuttle

Like many things in the latter days of the Soviet Union, the (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm) program was a response. It was a reaction to NASA’s space shuttle and an effort to give the Soviet’s an edge in getting to orbit, though the concept of in the Soviet Union predates the American space program. Buran was the most expensive and complicated space program in Soviet history, and one that contributed to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union as its economy fell apart and the political stability of the once proud nation fragmented. The Soviets sunk everything they had into both their response to the and into the rekindled space race, and this broke their already fragile economy. It was a gamble that they lost as the walls, both literally and figuratively, began to come down.

Buran was an endeavor that mobilized the best and the brightest in Soviet aerospace, and these were very, very bright individuals. The innovations, accomplishments and firsts of Soviet aerospace are many. This made the Buran progam’s end all the more frustrating as this huge effort was finally canceled in 1993 because of the crumbling Soviet state and the resulting loss of all funding. Sad that Buran only made one flight in 1988, unmanned, as a test. The program never had a chance to prove its value.

Pictured below is the mounted piggy back on its transport aircraft, an which was designed specifically to carry the Buran program shuttles between landing and launch sites, much like the NASA shuttles and their custom 747 transport. The An-225 is still the largest powered aircraft in the world.

Buran on transport aircraft

The Buran program is often criticized as essentially being a copy of the United States space shuttle, the result of espionage by the Soviets. The similarities are undeniable, and at the project’s inception in 1976 Soviet leaders pushed for the program to copy the American shuttle to maintain parity with the United States, though Soviet aerospace engineers argued for the utility of a smaller reusable shuttle. Superficially, there are incredible similarities between the two craft, as seen below:

US shuttle vs. USSR shuttle

In reality, there were many significant differences between the two craft:

  • - Buran utilized manned & robotic flight, the US shuttle was retrofitted for robotic flight.
  • - Unlike the shuttle, Buran had no main rocket engines freeing tremendous weight & space.
  • - Buran’s launcher, Energia, was designed to carry up to 80 metric tons into orbit on its own.
  • - Energa was also being designed to carry payloads to the moon without Buran.
  • - Buran could lift 30 metric tons of payload into orbit, vs. the shuttle’s 25 metric tons.
  • - The thermodynamic tiles of Buran were very different than the shuttle, and thought superior.

On May 12, 2002, a hangar housing the only remaining Buran shuttle, and quite possibly the actual shuttle that flew in 1988, collapsed due to inadequate maintenance and upkeep. The collapse killed eight workers and destroyed the shuttle.

5 Responses to “Lost Opportunities of The USSR – The Buran Program”

  1. John Says:

    There is also an interesting website on the there.

  2. John Schneider Says:

    Just got around to checking this link out. Great site. Thanks for the tip.

  3. alejandro mesa Says:

    la tecnologia sovietica era la mejor

  4. John Schneider Says:


    Thanks for the comment.

    Soviet tech certainly gave the United States an awesome competitor for a number of decades, and in many ways seemed to reach farther in terms of what was possible with technology at the time. On the other hand, it was also often very derivative of what was happening in the West.

  5. Alexandra Says:

    Buran’s constructor, Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, openly stated in his interview to Russians, when he was un-secreted (recently) (for his name was shielded behind other constructos’ names for decades) that he was ordered to copy the Shuttle, because his Spiral and MAKS were still in trials, while US shuttle flew in 1982 and got proven that works and “we want the result, quick”. So he copied the outlines of Shuttle, though thought it all stupid and awkward (his work was based on an airplane lifting spacecraft onto space border, not rockets as carriers, as it gave maneuvre chances, while Shuttle-Burans need to wait for a certain orbit moment, and give the crew no second chances, neither in landing, nor in take-off). Lozino-Lozinsky would be 100 years today, I think. His name is largely un-known, though he did most Migs. He died in 2001. He copied, unwillingly, but keep in mind had all for it, 3 cosmodromes, rockets to lift existing, engine of own design (for it is different in Shuttles and Burans) (there were 15 made, not 1, like this site states, for different trials of parts of the journey)(though only 1 did full cycle indeed), and had own coating ready, done already for his Spiral (the tiles that don’t chip off :o)
    That’s only why he was able to do it in 4 years.

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