Baikonur and the Buran

A few days ago, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched a model space shuttle.

At 7 metres long, the model is only a fraction of the size of the planned vehicle, but the launch was still significant. Coming on the back of their 2013 Mars orbiter, it adds to India’s standing amongst space-faring nations, and would appear to be a real sign of intent from the subcontinent.

It is interesting, though, that they should choose a shuttle. Whilst the US ditched the shuttle idea for good with the retirement of Atlantis in 2011, India, it seems, feel there is still some value to be had, as opposed to developing reusable rockets in the style of SpaceX.

Both are reusable, but NASA’s version of the shuttle was far more difficult to fund and maintained than originally planned. Far from having a turnaround time of a few weeks, and being able to perform regular flights, it instead had to be meticulously maintained and prepared before it could fly its next mission; this process took several months.

This is, of course, before cost is considered; the Shuttle Endeavour, for example, cost around $1.7 billion, and each launch came with a price tag of around $450 million. These things are not cheap, in part because of the heat-proof tiles used; each of the reinforced carbon-carbon tiles used on the leading edges of the shuttle cost around $1600. The LI-900 silicon tiles used on the underside cost $1000 each – bear in mind that there were over 20,000 of them on one Shuttle.

But there is, or was, an alternative. Whilst the US are famous for developing the Shuttle, and whilst India are creating their own version, there used to exist a third. The Soviet Union designed, built and flew their own shuttle as well; it went by the name of the Buran.

Buran on launchpad
The Buran ready for its only full test flight. Credit: J R

Externally, the Buran and the US Space Shuttle looked very similar; both followed the familiar design of a short, stubby nose, swooping wings and a tail fin. Both had a cargo bay behind the cabin, and both were to be launched like a rocket, and landed like a glider. But whilst the Shuttle was always intended to be landed like a glider, the Buran had provision for powered descent – space was reserved for the necessary rear-facing engines.

The launch systems had differences too; the Shuttle rode on the back of a huge external fuel tank, flanked by 2 solid rocket boosters. The Buran, on the other hand, rode on the back of a rather ingenious rocket developed by NPO Energia (now known as RSC Energia), the company that also led the development of the Soyuz spacecraft, along with the Russian segment of the ISS.

Thanks to the Soviet Union’s lack of experience with reusable engines, they had to use an alternative idea. Instead of having engines on the orbiter, as in the American design, they placed those engines on the bottom of what would be the main fuel tank, creating the Energia rocket. This rocket was then surrounded with 4 liquid boosters, with the Buran placed on top. However, the real advantage of this design was its flexibility; it could run in any of 4 configurations, with varying numbers of main engines and boosters, and could carry a range of payloads. One of these variations was also designed to be fully reusable; had they managed to build, fly and land the rocket, they would have predated SpaceX’s efforts by a good 20 years.

The Buran’s payload weight was also an improvement on the Shuttle, both into orbit and back again, of around 4500kg, and (had the jet engines been added to the back of the orbiter) could have made a landing under power, reducing the risk from adverse weather conditions – and with more crew as well, as the Buran had space for 10 cosmonauts (as opposed to 7 astronauts for the NASA machine). The Soviets also believed that the heatproof tile configuration used on the Buran was superior to that of the Shuttle – this would seem to be the case, as on the Buran’s only full flight, it lost just five tiles, out of a total of around 38,000.

The testing of the machine, although delayed by 4 years, went very successfully once it finally got off the ground. The Buran launched without any issues, separated from the Energia rocket as planned, completed 2 orbits around the Earth and landed safely. What is particularly worth noting is that not a single human was on board at the time – the whole test was completed using automated control, the first time such a feat had been managed with a spacecraft as complex as the Buran.

So you might think that, given the wild success of this test, the Soviet Union would build more – and they did. Another 4 vehicles were planned; one, rumoured to be called the ‘Ptichka’, was to be another ship designed for automated flight (although the necessary systems for manned flight may have been added later); the others were designed for manned flight from the beginning.

Unfortunately, though, that is as far as the Buran progressed. By this time the 1990s had come about, and with it the demise of the Soviet Union – possibly (with its huge budget) thanks to the Buran itself, at least in part. The final cost was estimated at between 14.5 and 20 billion roubles, around £150 million to £200 million without adjusting for inflation. The Buran, along with its partially completed sisters, was given to the now independent Kazakhstan in exchange for continued use of the launch site at Baikonur – a site Russia (and by extension many other countries) use to this day.

Test model in the Technik Museum
The aerodynamic test model on display at the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany. Note the presence of jet engines for atmospheric flight. Credit: Pedro Albuquerque

And so, the different machines created in the Buran program were flung far and wide. The test vehicles, built to test different parts of the final machine, ended their lives either as static displays or (in the case of the stress testing vehicle) at an amusement park in Moscow. One is still stored in a building in Baikonur; one, unsurprisingly, is owned by Energia. Visitors to the 2000 Sydney Olympics may be familiar with the Buran; one of the vehicles was displayed, albeit not very successfully, for the duration of the Games – although it is now owned by the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany.

As for the orbital vehicles, a very different fate awaited. Although the Ptichka (95% complete) was stored at Baikonur, the manned orbiters (40%, 20% and less than 20% complete respectively) were either stored outside the factory where they were being assembled, or simply dismantled (in the case of the latter vehicle). The saddest fate, though, belongs to that of the first machine, the original Buran. It was stored in a building at Kazakhstan, like the Ptichka; however, thanks to lack of funding, this building was not properly maintained. After over a decade in this state, strong winds caused the roof to collapse onto the Buran, killing 8 workers and leaving the vehicle broken in half on the floor. The wreckage, at least as of 2008, had not been cleared. With the Buran gone, and the other infrastructure in a poor state of repair, the Russian shuttle is no more. A sad end for a potentially brilliant machine.

And so, I leave you with this, which (as seems to be the nature of these things) my brain came up with late at night as I was trying to get to sleep. The title of the poem, as with this blog post, is ‘Baikonur and the Buran’:

When I talk of space, of rockets and people; Tell me, what do you see? Astronauts, brave people, Cape Canaveral too, Apollo in black and white on TV?

I’ll agree that Apollo was a stunning feat; I’ll agree that Armstrong was a hero; I’ll agree the shuttle was a relative success, and that Buzz and Mike were great also

But it wasn’t just NASA that entered the contest (though they say they won the race); The Russians put in a great effort too, to get humanity into space

You see Cape Kennedy, Apollo 11; I see Baikonur, and Soyuz; I think of Gagarin, Leonov , Tereshkova, just as you think of Neil and Buzz.

The shuttle was good, I’ll grant you that; it performed pretty well, I know. There were accidents, there were deaths, my respects to them; but we didn’t decide not to go.

Yet something brilliant lies unloved, deep in Kazakhstan. Broken, battered, damaged beyond repair – the Russian space shuttle, the Buran.

4 boosters, not 2, though they were white too; and a rocket instead of a fuel tank; the orbiter, with provision for powered descent, yet did not rattle, or clank.

Less well known than the shuttle, sure; less well known than NASA. But space, as far as I am concerned, is a case of ‘Mi casa, su casa’.

4 years delay, but no matter – see! The Buran takes to the sky! A perfect launch! A perfect flight! The numbers do not lie!

But the same could be said of the funding for Buran – cost billions of roubles, you see. Enough to cause trouble, cause crippling debts; enough to bring down a country?

The Buran could have been something great; 5 were planned, so I’m told. But the fall of the union came – though 2 were kept; 3 were planned to be sold.

So what remained? I’ll tell you now – stored in a building was the Buran. The Ptichka too, mostly completed, was also at Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The Ptichka is fine, as far as I know; the same is not true of the Buran. For thanks to a building collapse, whilst once it flew – today, it no longer can.

It’s a sad sight, I’ll tell you now; this potential small step for man; shattered components, battered pieces are all that remain of the Buran.

No sign, either, of a program revived, no sign or even a sniff. So, as I sit here, writing this poem, I can’t help but wonder, what if?

So, though the site’s not close to Baikonur, and it’s actually in Tyuratam – spare a thought for Baikonur, and spare a thought for the Buran.

All pictures from Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license found at


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