"Buran": the history of the Russian shuttle

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"Buran": the history of the Russian shuttle
"Buran": the history of the Russian shuttle

There are pages in Soviet history that arouse genuine pride in our past. The reusable spacecraft Buran is just such a case. And although the domestic shuttle made only one single flight, it forever changed world history. "Buran" possessed characteristics that were far ahead of their time. Why did the Energia-Buran program provoke heated discussions in the USSR? And why did the Russian leadership abandon the ambitious project?

spaceship "Buran"

The progenitor of "Buran"

"Buran" was developed under the influence of the experience of overseas colleagues who created the legendary "space shuttles". The reusable Space Shuttle ships were designed as part of the NASA Space Transportation System program, and the first shuttle made its first launch on April 12, 1981 - to the anniversary of Gagarin's flight. This date can be considered the starting point in the history of reusable spacecraft.

The shuttle's main drawback was its price. The cost of one launch cost US taxpayers $ 450 million. For comparison, the launch price of a one-off Soyuz is $ 35-40 million. So why did the Americans take the path of creating just such spaceships? And why was the Soviet leadership so interested in the American experience? It's all about the arms race.

The Space Shuttle is the brainchild of the Cold War, or rather the ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, whose task was to create a system for countering Soviet intercontinental missiles. The colossal scale of the SDI project led to the fact that it was dubbed "Star Wars".


The development of the shuttle did not go unnoticed in the USSR. In the minds of Soviet warships, the ship appeared as a kind of superweapon capable of delivering a nuclear strike from the depths of space. In fact, the reusable spacecraft was created only to deliver elements of the missile defense system into orbit. The idea of ​​using the shuttle as an orbital missile carrier really sounded, but the Americans abandoned it even before the first flight of the spacecraft.

The death of the Challenger shuttle became one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of world cosmonautics. The disaster took place on January 28, 1986, immediately after the ship took off. The cause was damage to one of the side accelerators. The drama of the situation was made by the fact that on board the shuttle was Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who took part in the "Teacher in Space" project. Therefore, widespread public attention was riveted on the mission long before the disaster, and the crash of the Challenger became a national tragedy for the United States.

Many in the USSR also feared that the shuttles could be used to steal Soviet spacecraft. The fears were not unfounded: the shuttle had an impressive manipulator on board, and the cargo compartment could easily accommodate even large space satellites. However, it seems that the kidnapping of Soviet ships was not part of the plans of the Americans. And how could such a demarche be explained in the international arena?

However, in the Land of the Soviets, they began to think about an alternative to an overseas invention. The domestic ship was supposed to serve both military and peaceful purposes. It could be used for scientific work, delivering cargo to orbit and returning them to Earth. But the main purpose of "Buran" was to carry out military tasks.It was seen as the main element of the space combat system, designed both to counter possible aggression from the United States and to deliver counterstrikes.

In the 1980s, the Skif and Kaskad combat orbiters were developed. They were largely unified. Their launch into orbit was considered one of the main tasks of the EnergiaBuran program. The combat systems were supposed to destroy US ballistic missiles and military spacecraft with laser or missile weapons. For the destruction of targets on Earth, it was proposed to use the orbital warheads of the R-36orb rocket, which would be placed on board the Buran. The warhead had a 5Mt thermonuclear charge. In total, "Buran" could take on board up to fifteen such units. But there were even more ambitious projects. For example, the option of building a space station was considered, the warheads of which would be the modules of the "Buran" spacecraft. Each such module carried striking elements in the cargo compartment, and in the event of war, they had to fall on the enemy's head. The elements were gliding carriers of nuclear weapons, housed in so-called revolver mounts inside the cargo hold. The "Burana" module could accommodate up to four revolving installations, each of which carried up to five striking elements. At the time of the first launch of the ship, all these combat elements were at the development stage.

With all these plans, by the time of the ship's first flight, there was no clear understanding of its combat missions. There was no unity among the specialists involved in the project. Among the leaders of the country were both supporters and ardent opponents of the creation of "Buran". But the leading developer of Buran, Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, has always supported the concept of reusable devices. The position of Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, who saw the shuttles as a threat to the USSR and demanded a decent response to the American program, played a role in the appearance of the Buran.

It was the fear of "new space weapons" that forced the Soviet leadership to follow the path of overseas competitors. At first, the ship was even thought not so much as an alternative, but as an exact copy of the shuttle. Soviet intelligence mined the blueprints of the American ship back in the mid-1970s, and now the designers had to build their own. But the difficulties that arose forced the developers to look for unique solutions.

So, engines became one of the main problems. The USSR did not have a power plant equal in its characteristics to the American SSME. Soviet engines turned out to be larger, heavier and had less thrust. But the geographic conditions of the Baikonur cosmodrome, on the contrary, required more thrust in comparison with the conditions of Cape Canaveral. The fact is that the closer the launch pad is to the equator, the more useful mass the same type of launch vehicle can put into orbit. The advantage of the American cosmodrome over Baikonur was estimated at about 15%. All this led to the fact that the design of the Soviet ship had to be changed in the direction of reducing the mass.

In total, 1200 enterprises of the country worked on the creation of "Buran", and during its development, 230 unique technologies were obtained.

Prior to the development of Buran, Lozino-Lozinsky was in charge of the Spiral project, one of the most ambitious in the history of astronautics. The program involved the creation of a "space fighter" and was a response to the American project X-20 Dyna Soar. Both Dyna Soar and Spiral have been phased out for other, more realistic designs. In our time, many reproach the leaders of the USSR for sacrificing the promising Spiral for the sake of the Buran ship.


First flight

The ship received its name "Buran" just before the first - and, as it turned out, the last - launch, which took place on November 15, 1988."Buran" was launched from the "Baikonur" cosmodrome and 205 minutes later, having circled the planet twice, landed there. Only two people in the world could see the takeoff of a Soviet ship with their own eyes - a pilot of a MiG-25 fighter and a flight operator of a cosmodrome: "Buran" flew without a crew, and from the moment of takeoff to touching the ground, it was controlled by an onboard computer.

The flight of the ship became a unique event. For the first time in all space flights, a reusable vehicle was able to independently return to Earth. In this case, the deviation of the ship from the center line was only three meters. According to eyewitnesses, some dignitaries did not believe in the success of the mission, believing that the ship would crash on landing. Indeed, when the device entered the atmosphere, its speed was 30 thousand km / h, so the "Buran" had to maneuver to slow down - but in the end the flight went off with a bang.

The Soviet specialists had something to be proud of. And although the Americans had much more experience in this area, their shuttles could not land on their own. However, pilots and cosmonauts are far from always ready to entrust their lives to the autopilot, and subsequently the Buran software was nevertheless added to the possibility of manual landing.

The largest aircraft in the world, the An-225 Mriya, was specially designed for the transportation of the Buran. The length of the giant was 84 m, and the wingspan was 88 m. Only one copy was built, which is still operated by Antonov Airlines. It is noteworthy that the Americans followed the same path, having adapted the Boeing-747 shuttle for transportation.



The Buran was built according to the tailless aerodynamic design and had a delta wing. Like its overseas counterparts, it was quite large: 36.4 m in length, wingspan - 24 m, launch weight - 105 tons. The spacious all-welded cabin could accommodate up to ten people.

Thermal protection was one of the most important elements of the Buran's design. In some places of the vehicle during takeoff and landing, the temperature could reach 1430 ° C. To protect the ship and crew, carbon-carbon composites, quartz fiber and felt materials were used. The total weight of heat-shielding materials exceeded 7 tons.

The large cargo hold allowed large cargo to be taken on board, for example, space satellites. To launch such spacecraft into space, "Buran" could use a huge manipulator, similar to the one on board the shuttle. The total carrying capacity of the Buran was 30 tons.

Two stages were involved in launching the ship. At the initial stage of the flight, four missiles with RD-170 liquid-propellant engines - the most powerful liquid-propellant engines ever created - undocked from the Buran. The thrust of the RD-170 was 806.2 tf, and its operating time was 150 s. Each such engine had four nozzles. The second stage of the ship consists of four RD-0120 liquid oxygen-hydrogen engines installed on the central fuel tank. The operating time of these engines was up to 500 s. After the fuel was used up, the ship undocked from the huge tank and continued its flight on its own. The shuttle itself can be considered the third stage of the space complex. In general, the Energia launch vehicle was one of the most powerful in the world, and had a very great potential.


Perhaps the main requirement for the Energia-Buran program was maximum reusability. Indeed, the only disposable part of this complex was to be a giant fuel tank. However, unlike the engines of the American shuttles, which gently splashed down in the ocean, the Soviet boosters landed in the steppe near Baikonur, so it was rather problematic to reuse them.

Another feature of the "Buran" was that its main engines were not part of the apparatus itself, but were on the launch vehicle - or rather, on the fuel tank.In other words, all four RD-0120 engines burned out in the atmosphere, while the shuttle engines returned with it. In the future, Soviet designers wanted to make the RD-0120 reusable, and this would significantly reduce the cost of the Energia-Buran program. In addition, the ship was supposed to receive two built-in jet engines for maneuvers and landing, but by its first flight the device was not equipped with them and in fact was a "bare" glider. Like its American counterpart, "Buran" could land only once - in case of an error, there was no second chance.


A big plus was that the Soviet concept made it possible to put into orbit not only a ship, but also additional cargo weighing up to 100 tons. The domestic shuttle had some advantages over shuttles. For example, it could take on board up to ten people (versus seven crew members at the shuttle) and was able to spend more time in orbit - about 30 days, while the longest shuttle flight was only 17.

Unlike the shuttle, it had Buran and a crew rescue system. At low altitude, the pilots could eject, and if the unforeseen situation above had happened, the ship would separate from the launch vehicle and land in the manner of an airplane.


What is the bottom line?

The fate of "Buran" from its very birth was not easy, and the collapse of the USSR only exacerbated the difficulties. By the early 1990s, 16.4 billion Soviet rubles (about $ 24 billion) had been spent on the Energia-Buran program, while its further prospects were very vague. Therefore, in 1993, the Russian leadership decided to abandon the project. By that time, two spaceships had been built, one more was in production, and the fourth and fifth were just being laid.

In 2002, the first and only space flight Buran died when the roof of one of the buildings of the Baikonur cosmodrome collapsed. The second ship remained in the museum of the cosmodrome and is the property of Kazakhstan. The half-painted third sample could be seen at the MAKS-2011 air show. The fourth and fifth apparatus were no longer completed.

“Speaking about the American shuttle and our Buran, one must first of all understand that these programs were military, both the one and the other,” says Pavel Bulat, an aerospace specialist, Ph.D. - The Buran's scheme was more progressive. Separately, the rocket, separately - the payload. There was no need to talk about any economic efficiency, but in technical terms, the Buran-Energia complex was much better. There is nothing forced in the fact that Soviet engineers refused to place engines on the ship. We designed a separate rocket with a side-hung payload. The rocket had specific characteristics unsurpassed neither before nor after. She could be rescued. Why put an engine on a ship in such conditions? … It's just a rise in price and a decrease in weight efficiency. And organizationally: the rocket was made by RSC Energia, the glider - by NPO Molniya. On the contrary, for the United States it was a forced decision, only not a technical one, but a political one. The boosters were made with a solid rocket engine to load the manufacturers. "Buran", although it was made on the direct orders of Ustinov, "like a shuttle", but was verified from a technical point of view. It really turned out to be much more perfect. The program was closed - it's a pity, but, objectively, there was no payload for either the rocket or the plane. It took a year to prepare for the first launch. Therefore, they would go broke on such launches. To make it clear, the cost of one launch was approximately equal to the cost of a Slava-class missile cruiser.

Of course, "Buran" took over many features of its American progenitor. But the shuttle and Buran were structurally very different. Both ships had both indisputable advantages and objective disadvantages.Despite the progressive concept of "Buran", disposable ships were, are, and in the foreseeable future will remain much cheaper ships. Therefore, the closure of the Buran project, as well as the rejection of shuttles, seems to be the right decision.

In 2013, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested that the Buran tests could continue in modern Russia. He pointed out that reusable ships were far ahead of their time, and in the future they will have to return to them. However, many saw ordinary populism in this statement.


The history of the creation of the shuttle and "Buran" makes us think once again about how deceiving seemingly advantageous promising technologies can be. Of course, new reusable devices will sooner or later see the light of day, but what kind of ships they will be is another question.

There is another side to the issue. During the creation of Buran, the space industry gained invaluable experience that could be used in the future to create other reusable spacecraft. The very fact of the successful development of "Buran" speaks of the highest technological level of the USSR.

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