This week’s entry: Buran programme
What it’s about: Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of… actually, now that we mention it, that should be voyage. Singular. After losing the race to the moon, the Soviet space program began developing a reusable space plane to compete with the American space shuttle. What resulted was the most ambitious and expensive program in the history of Soviet space flight, and a near-total failure.
Biggest controversy: The Buran was outwardly similar to the Space Shuttle, so much so that Americans assumed the Russians ripped us off. The internal mechanics and propulsion systems, however, were very different. It’s speculated that Soviet spy cameras saw the shuttle in development from the outside and that design was imitated. Wikipedia cites a CIA source that Buran is based on a rejected American shuttle design.
Strangest fact: The 19-year Buran program produced only one spaceflight. While 14 different prototypes and test vehicles were built, only the Orbiter K1 (also called Buran, confusingly) went into space. The vehicle was intended to be reusable, but it was never reused. The lone flight took place in 1988, with a second not planned until 1993. In the interim, the Soviet Union disbanded, and the Buran program with it. But the K1’s lone flight still made history—it was completely unmanned. Unlike the U.S. shuttle, the Buran was designed to operate with or without a crew. The K1 managed to lift into temporary orbit and then return to Earth on autopilot in high winds, hitting its target within 13 meters.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Buran’s always ready for a comeback. When the U.S. grounded the Space Shuttle fleet following the 2003 Columbia disaster, there was speculation that Russia might fill the gap by bringing back either the Buran shuttle or at least the Energia launcher that put it into space. But any existing equipment had either been repurposed or fallen into disrepair.
In 2010, Russia talked about reviving the program, but gave up after “differences in vision with its European partners.” The following year, the U.S. retired the Space Shuttles permanently, and the Russian space program discussed building new Burans instead of spending time on a new design, but again, the plans weren’t followed through on.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There was no Russian air and space museum to display the Buran shuttle. For 14 years after its lone flight, it sat in a hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, until a storm in 2002 caused the hangar roof to collapse, destroying the K1 and killing eight people.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Buran is just one of a long list of space programs that—wait for it—didn’t get off the ground. List of human spaceflight programs includes the single-digit list of successful programs. All of those are American or Soviet/Russian except China’s Shenzhou program, which has put 11 people (one twice, and one three times) and two space stations into orbit since 2003. It also lists history’s five space station programs—Salyut, Skylab, Mir, ISS, and Tiangong—as well as a dozen programs in development. As long as all of those lists combined is the list of space programs cancelled before manned launch, including the painfully named Dyna-Soar, a late ’50s/early ’60s American space plane project.
Further down the Wormhole: The Soviet and Russian space programs have always had stiff competition in NASA, who did manage a successful and long-running shuttle program, among other things. NASA’s biggest success was the Apollo program, which fulfilled President Kennedy’s dream of putting Americans on the moon. JFK tapped James E. Webb to run the program; Webb was a veteran of Harry S. Truman’s administration. Truman was famously a failed haberdasher some years before becoming president, but as a younger man, he was a timekeeper on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, so named because its original terminus was Atchison, Kansas. The city was founded by another president—David Rice Atchison, who some claim was “president for a day” in the one-day gap between the Polk and Taylor administrations. We’ll look at his (possibly nonexistent) administration next week.