The Soviet reusable spacecraft program Buran ("Бура́н" meaning "snowstorm" or "blizzard" in Russian) began in 1976 at TsAGI as a response to the United States Space Shuttle program. Soviet politicians were convinced that the Space Shuttle would be an effective military weapon since the U.S. Department of Defense took part in the project, and could pose a potential threat to the balance of power during the Cold War. The project was the largest and the most expensive in the history of Soviet space exploration.
Because Buran's debut followed that of Space Shuttle Columbia's, and because there were striking visual similarities between the two shuttle systems — a state of affairs which recalled the similarity between the Tupolev Tu-144 and Concorde supersonic airliners — many speculated that Cold War espionage played a role in the development of the Soviet shuttle. It is now known, however, that, while externally it was an aerodynamic copy of the Space Shuttle, internally it was all engineered and developed domestically.
Key differences with the NASA Space Shuttle
- Buran was not an integral part of the system, but rather a payload for the Energia launcher. Therefore payloads — other than Buran orbiter — with mass as high as 80 metric tons could be lifted to space by Energia, as was the case on its first launch.
- As Buran was designed to be capable of both manned and unmanned flight, it had automated landing capability; the manned version was never operational.
- The orbiter had no main rocket engines, freeing space and weight for additional payload; the largest cylindrical structure is the Energia carrier-rocket, not just a fuel tank.
- The boosters used liquid propellant (kerosene/oxygen).
- The Energia carrier, including the main engines, was designed to be reusable but funding cuts meant that a reusable version of Energia was never completed. The U.S. Space Shuttle has reusable main engines in the orbiter and reusable Solid Rocket Boosters but requires a new External Fuel Tank for each flight, as the tank is not recovered and is allowed to burn up in the atmosphere.
- Buran can lift 30 metric tons into orbit in its standard configuration, compared to the Space Shuttle's 25 metric tons.
- The high lift-to-drag ratio of the space aeroplane Buran is 6.5 against 5.5 for Space Shuttle.
- Buran returned 20 metric tons of payload against 15 metric tons for Space Shuttle orbiter from an orbit to an aerodrome.
- The thermal protection tiles on the Buran and U.S. Space Shuttles are laid out differently. Soviet engineers believed their design to be thermodynamically superior.
- Buran's equivalent of the shuttle's Orbital Maneuvering System was superior in that it used non toxic propellants (GOX/Kerosene), and gave higher performance.
The development of the Buran began in the early 1970s as a response to the U.S. Space Shuttle program. While the Soviet engineers favored a smaller, lighter lifting body vehicle, the military leadership pushed for a direct, full scale copy of the delta wing Space Shuttle, in an effort to maintain the strategic parity between the superpowers.
The construction of the shuttles began in 1980 and by 1984 the first full-scale Buran was rolled out. The first suborbital test flight of a scale-model, however, took place as early as July 1983. As the project progressed, five additional scale-model flights were performed. A test vehicle was constructed with four jet engines mounted at the rear; this vehicle is usually referred to as OK-GLI, or as the "Buran aerodynamic analog". The jets were used to take off from a normal landing strip, and once it reached a designated point, the engines were cut and OK-GLI glided back to land. This provided invaluable information about the handling characteristics of the Buran design, and was much more convenient that the carrier plane/air drop method used by the USA and the Enterprise test craft. Twenty-four test flights of OK-GLI were performed after which the shuttle was "worn out".
The first and only orbital launch of the (unmanned) shuttle Buran 1.01 was at 3:00 UTC on 15 November 1988. It was lifted into orbit by the specially designed Energiya booster rocket. The life support system was not installed and no software was installed on the CRT displays.
The shuttle orbited the Earth twice before returning, performing an impressive automated landing on the shuttle runway at Baikonur Cosmodrome. The U.S shuttles' landings are almost completely automated, although they can be flown manually.
Part of the launch was televised, but the actual lift-off was not shown. This led to some speculation that the mission may have been fabricated, and that the subsequent landing may not have been from orbit but from a shuttle-carrying aircraft. (Note that in the United States, this procedure was used to test the flight characteristics of the Space Shuttle on approach and landing using the Approach and Landing Test vehicle Space Shuttle Enterprise, so that by the time mission STS-1 drew to a close, the handling characteristics of Space Shuttle Columbia would be known.) Since then, the launch video has been released to the public, confirming that the shuttle did indeed lift off, with the poor weather conditions described by the Russian media at the time easily seen.
After the first flight the project was suspended due to lack of funds and the political situation in the Soviet Union. The two subsequent orbiters, which were due in 1990 (informally Ptichka, meaning "little bird") and 1992 were never completed. The project was officially terminated on June 30 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin. At the time of its cancellation, 20 billion rubles had been spent on the Buran program. 
The program was to have boosted national pride, carried out research, and met technological objectives similar to those of the U.S. shuttle program, including resupply of the Mir space station, which was launched in 1986 and remained in service until 2001. When Mir was finally visited by a spaceplane, the visitor was an American shuttle — not Buran.
The completed shuttles 1.01 (11F35 K1, "Buran") and 1.02 (11F35 K2, informal "Ptichka"), and the remains of the project are now property of Kazakhstan. In 2002, the hangar housing the sole space-flown Buran 1.01 orbiter and a mockup of the Energiya booster rocket collapsed due to incomplete maintenance, destroying the vehicle. Eight workers were also killed in the collapse of the building's roof. *Image Of Damaged Buran Space Shuttle
Burans 2.01 (11F35 K3) and 2.02 (11F35 K4) (a second series with a modified flight-deck design, equipped with Zvezda K-36RB ejection seats for the first manned flights) never left the Tushino factory and remain there in poor condition. Parts from these vehicles are being sold on the Internet.
The partially built Buran 2.03 (11F35 K5) was dismantled when the program was closed, and no longer exists.
As well as the five "production" Burans, there were eight test vehicles. These were used for static testing or atmospheric trials, and some were merely mock-ups for testing of electrical fittings, crew procedures, etc.
Serial numbers and current status
OK-M (later OK-ML-1) Static test Now at Baikonur Cosmodrome OK-GLI Aero test OK-KS Static electrical/integration test Now at the Energia factory in Korolev OK-MT (later OK-ML-2) Engineering mock-up Now at Baikonur Cosmodrome OK-??? Static test Status unknown OK-TVI Static heat/vacuum testbed Status unknown OK-??? Static test Status unknown OK-TVA Static test Now in Gorky Park, Moscow
The OK-GLI test vehicle was fitted with four jet engines mounted at the rear (the fuel tank for the engines occupied a quarter of the cargo bay). This Buran could take off under its own power for flight tests, which is a contrast to the American Enterprise test vehicle, which was entirely unpowered and relied on an air launch.
After the program was cancelled, OK-GLI was stored at Zhukovsky Air Base, near Moscow, and eventually bought by an Australian company, Buran Space Corporation. It was transported by ship to Sydney, Australia via Gothenberg, Sweden (account of the operation) — arriving on February 9, 2000 — and appeared as a static tourist attraction under a large temporary structure in Darling Harbour for a few years.
Visitors could walk around and inside the vehicle (a walkway was built along the cargo bay), and plans were in place for a tour of various cities in Australia and Asia. The owners, however, went into bankruptcy, and the vehicle was moved into the open air, where it suffered some deterioration and vandalism.
The 2003 grounding of the U.S. Space Shuttles caused many to wonder aloud whether the Russian Energia launcher or Buran shuttle could be brought back into service. By then, however, all of the equipment for both (including the vehicles themselves) had fallen into disrepair or been repurposed after falling into disuse with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Buran in Science Fiction
Shuttle Buran, alongside with another Soviet space orbiter project, Spiral, is used in Sergey Lukyanenko's The Stars Are Cold Toys novel. Equipped with the fictional jumper engine, Buran is one of the primary means of interstellar trade with aliens.
- Energiya - The booster rocket, the second part of the "Buran-Energia" space system.
- Antonov An-225 - The world's largest aircraft (by MTOW), built to carry the Buran
- Mir space station
- Baikonur Cosmodrome
- Encyclopedia Astronautica: Buran
- buran.ru – The official website by the NPO "Molniya", makers of the Buran.
- Unfinished Buran 2.01 interior photogallery
- Images and information, very nice design
- Russian Aviation page
- Buran The Russian Shuttle - Gizmohighway Technology Guide
- Mir-Shuttle Docking Module - Astronautix.com
- German aviation museum acquires Buran test article for display (in German)
- Buran's first flight, lift-off video
- Web Site on Buran in Sydney
- landing video
- Google maps view of Gorky Park, with OK-TVA clearly visible
- Buran in Spanish: Espacial.org
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