|A Buran wind tunnel model. Photo by author Kobel, from Wikimedia Commons. |
So Why Is It Called Buran?
Soviet spacecraft and rocket programs tend to be known by three word acronyms when they are in development. In the case of Salyut, it was known by the acronym DOS until just before launch when somebody suggested calling it "Salyut" (Russian for "salute") since it would be flying on the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight. The Proton rocket was named in a similar way because its first payload was a science satellite called "Proton." When the first Soviet orbiter was rolled out, it did not have a name painted on the side. But when it was mated with its booster, it had "Buran" painted on the side in an italics-style font, and that became the name when it was revealed publicly to the world press. The rocket booster gained the "Energia" name in similar fashion. A few short weeks before the first flight of the booster with the "Polyus" payload, Glushko made the decision to call it "Energia" and the name was painted on the booster in big red letters.
First (And Only) Flight
As to why the decision was made to fly the unfinished Buran in 1988, it probably had a lot to do with NASA's shuttle plans. In 1986, NASA's program was grounded after the loss of space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L. The program went through a two-and-a half-year delay before shuttle Discovery rose into orbit on STS-26 in September 1988. For those two-and-a-half years, the Soviets had commanded the space headlines with their successful launching and occupation of the Mir space station, and Buran would have added to the prestige if they had gotten it to fly before the Americans did. Even though they missed out on that opportunity, chances were good that Buran could fly before Atlantis did on STS-27, and give the West the perception that the Soviets had a new capability which was "equal" to the Americans.
YouTube video from Андрей Русавин
One attempt was made in October to fly Buran, but the launch called off at the last minute due to a technical fault. When Buran did fly on November 15th, 1988, it lived up to its namesake as the launch area was in the middle of a snowstorm.
Cancellation and Legacy
But even before that, there is evidence that the Buran test flight wasn't as perfect as we were lead to believe. The Buran shuttle suffered visible heat damage to its right wing tiles, and the rest of the shuttle's thermal insulation also showed evidence that it may not have come through its first reentry as well as Columbia did on STS-1. I've also heard rumors that the Buran suffered a burn through during reentry, although I haven't heard any specific accounts of what exactly happened. Even if the Buran's heat shield had come through with flying colors, it still needed two years of intense effort and high cost to get the rest of the vehicle's systems ship-shape for a manned flight.
As for the Energia booster, while it had two successful space flights it never flew again simply because it lacked a payload. The Proton rocket achieved great success on the civilian market, launching satellite payloads for commercial customers. But nobody had a need to launch anything using Energia, which could haul massive payloads. So the booster remained unflown. Not all was lost though, as the strap-on boosters were modified to become a successful medium-sized launch vehicle known as "Zenit".
Periodically there is talk of restarting the Energia program, but even today Russian space hardware development is still expensive. While the Russian economy is in a better state than it was in the mid-1990s, diplomatic relations with other countries have been somewhat rocky in recent years. Energia might potentially find life as a booster for a mission to Mars, but such plans seem to be more wishful thinking than anything else. As NASA has found out, it can cost just as much to restart an old program as it does to start from scratch.
|From Wikimedia Commons: "Russian Buran OK-M test article, after refurbishment and display at the Baikonur museum in Kazakhstan." Photo by Alexander A. Karsakbayev, labeled November 2007.|
So while the Buran itself may be little more than a footnote in Soviet space history, it has left a lasting legacy which continues to this day.
Jay Chladek is a freelance space historian and model builder who has written chapters in various books about plastic models of aircraft and spacecraft, both real and fictional. He has also won awards at various levels for his model building work, and has had an interest in space since he was a child growing up in the 1970s. Outposts on the Frontier: A Fifty Year History of Space Stations is his first book in the subject of space history, and will be published as part of the University of Nebraska’s Outward Odyssey series in 2017. Many thanks to Jay for contributing this series!