Copying NASA's Mistakes

The Soviet version of the U.S. space shuttle was an engineering marvel but a total waste

2 min read

In 1988, the Soviet Union achieved its first and only space shuttle flight, with the Buran (”blizzard” in English) space plane. It flew two orbits of the Earth on autopilot and landed safely on a ­runway at its launch site, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, an impressive feat. However, its cost helped to bankrupt the Soviet space program just before the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Later, the roof of the spaceship’s hangar fell in, crushing it into scrap metal.

Now a pair of amateur European space historians have published the first full account of the project, just in time for analysts in both the United States and Russia to learn from the affair as they look to develop new ­spacecraft for human flight. There is a lot for them to learn: many mis­judgments led the Soviet Union to needlessly ­duplicate NASA’s shuttle program, which had itself been poorly thought out.

The authors did their work extremely well, relying on archives and interviews, mostly in Russian, and they have provided a balanced, ­technologically ­insightful, and well-­illustrated narrative. All ­dimensions of the project—the vehicle, its support infrastructure, the ­training of the crew, and the planning of the ­mission—are an integrated whole. Of ­particular interest to IEEE Spectrum readers are details never before made available about the spaceship’s power, ­guidance, and communications systems.

The Buran was to carry four fuel cells (code-named Foton), ­compared with NASA’s three. Like the U.S. ­shuttle, Buran could also carry ­extension kits for enough ­cryogenics to ­support ­longer missions. But Buran had one big ­difference: it also ­carried ­chemical ­batteries for 24 hours of ­emergency power, in case the fuel cells failed. Because the first flight lasted only 3 hours, the fuel cells were not installed, and so they never got a chance to fly in space. Buran was ­controlled by four Biser-4 ­computers running ­parallel ­software. The 130 kilobytes of RAM had to be reloaded from tape units as new flight phases occurred. The flight software’s ­development ­problems appear to have closely paralleled the U.S. experience.

Buran ’s radio links operated through line-of-sight VHF and UHF bands as well as ­centi­meter ­waveband, or SHG (super high ­frequency), which is ­managed by a set of geosynchronous relay ­satellites. Launched in the 1980s, the ­satellites were also used by the Mir space ­station. Following the ­collapse of the USSR in 1991, none were replaced, and the on-orbit payloads all ceased operating within a few years.

The authors provide an ­excellent transition to the post- Buran period, as Russian space engineers tried, with little success, to salvage some of the work done for this project. Symbolic of this is the fate of one of the Buran test ­vehicles, which ended up as a ­riverside ­restaurant in a Moscow park.

The program’s engineering was probably the best in the history of the Soviet space program, but because the political and social underpinnings were rotten, the engineering work was tragically wasted.

About the Author

JAMES OBERG, a 22-year veteran of NASA ­mission control, is a writer and ­consultant based in Houston. His latest book, Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S./Russian Space Alliance (McGraw-Hill, 2002), describes the ­development of the International Space Station and the Russians’ role in making it possible. This month Oberg weighs in on a new book on Buran, the Soviet space shuttle [p. 22], which made its first and only flight in 1988.

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