This authoritative history chronicles one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War. When the US Space Shuttle program was launched in 1972, the Soviets, unlike the majority of journalists and space advocates in the West who were bamboozled by NASA’s propaganda, couldn’t make any sense of the economic justification for the program. They crunched the numbers, and they just didn’t work—the flight rates, cost per mission, and most of the other numbers were obviously not achievable.
So, did the Soviets chuckle at this latest folly of the capitalist, imperialist aggressors and continue on their own time-proven path of mass-produced low-technology expendable boosters? Well, of course not! They figured that even if their wisest double-domed analysts were unable to discern the justification for the massive expenditures NASA had budgeted for the Shuttle, there must be some covert military reason for its existence to which they hadn’t yet twigged, and hence they couldn’t tolerate a shuttle gap and consequently had to build their own, however pointless it looked on the surface.
And that’s precisely what they did, as this book so thoroughly documents, with a detailed history, hundreds of pictures, and technical information which has only recently become available.
The most striking thing about the Buran orbiter is that it is almost identical in size and configuration to the US Space Shuttle orbiter, to such an extent that some wags called it “Shuttleski,” and it was widely assumed to be a direct copy of the US design. In fact, the story is quite a bit more complicated and interesting. Recall the rationale for the program: the Soviets did not want the US to develop a space operations capability which they lacked. Consequently, the design goals of the Soviet shuttle would have to equal or exceed those of the US craft in order to accomplish the same mission (whatever that might be). This dictated payload bay size and mass capability, orbital inclinations and altitudes accessible, and cross-range capacity (the ability to land at locations far from the orbital track by maneuvering in the atmosphere). These requirements could only be met by a vehicle with high wing loading (to achieve the large cross-range), which in turn meant a hot reentry, necessitating a thermal protection system able to take the heat.
Putting all of this together and given the materials technology available at the time, any design which duplicated the capabilities of the US shuttle was likely to strongly resemble it, even if it were a clean sheet design. But the Soviet engineers didn’t have to start with a clean sheet, and no espionage was required. NASA was very open about the design and development of the shuttle, and extensive information about its specifications, design, development, and component testing was available in the open literature. Since the US went first, the Soviets could examine this material and pick and choose aspects of it for their own design. Here is a detailed discussion of the differences between the US and Soviet orbiters on buran.su.
Despite the similarity in appearance of the orbiters, the complete systems were very different. The US space shuttle orbiter had three main engines powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LH₂/LOX) stored in a large external fuel tank which was discarded upon reaching orbital altitude and broke up upon re-entry, with debris falling in the Indian or Pacific Oceans depending upon the launch trajectory. For the first two minutes of flight, most of the thrust was provided by two solid rocket boosters mounted to the sides of the external tank. After burning out, the boosters were jettisoned and parachuted to the Atlantic, where they were recovered by ships and returned to the launch site for inspection, refurbishment, and re-use.
The US shuttle was an integrated system in which all components (orbiter, external tank, and solid rocket boosters) were developed specifically for the shuttle and had no other applications. Payloads were carried in the 18-meter-long payload bay (sized to accommodate the largest reconnaissance satellites envisioned at the time of its specification) and, depending upon the orbit required, could be up to 27.5 tonnes in mass. (On missions to the International Space Station, with a high inclination and orbital altitude, payload was reduced to 16 tonnes.)
The Soviet Buran orbiter, by comparison, was a payload carried by Energiya, a general purpose heavy-lift launcher capable of carrying a variety of payloads in addition to the shuttle. Energiya was composed of a core stage burning LH₂/LOX in four RD-0120 engines which were comparable in performance, although less complicated, less expensive, and heavier than the US shuttle’s main engines. These were the first large liquid hydrogen engines developed by the Soviets. Four boosters were attached to the core stage, each burning kerosene and liquid oxygen in an RD-170 engine. (The RD-180 engine used on the US Atlas V launcher, which has been the subject of recent controversy, is a less powerful version of the RD-170.) The boosters and core stage are all ignited for liftoff. After 140 seconds, the boosters burn out and are jettisoned, while the core stage and payload attached to its side continue on to space. The boosters were designed to be recovered for reuse by means of parachutes and a retro-rocket for landing, but this system was not installed for the initial flights and the boosters were expended. Energiya was able to place payloads of up to 100 tonnes in low Earth orbit (again, depending upon the parameters of the required orbit). After separating from the core stage, the payload was responsible for providing its own propulsion. Third stages were envisioned for launches to geostationary orbit, the Moon, or the planets, but these were never developed.
The Buran orbiter was simply one of the payloads which Energiya could carry. Unlike the US shuttle, it had no main engines, just orbital maneuvering engines which were used to circularize its orbit, make orbital adjustments for rendezvous with space stations or satellites, and de-orbit at the end of the mission. This architecture meant that the four engines on the core stage were expended on every mission, unlike the three main engines which were returned with the US orbiter. The economics of this are unclear. Refurbishment of the space shuttle main engines was complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Further, the engines themselves were more complicated and expensive due to the requirement of re-use. Energiya’s core stage engines could be designed for a single run of less than 10 minutes, which simplified the design and reduced costs. Buran’s payload size and mass were comparable to the US shuttle. Buran could fly autonomously without a crew.
The Soviet shuttle had a number of advantages over the US design. First among these was the ability to use the Energiya booster without the orbiter as an unmanned cargo launcher. In this mode it could launch payloads with around four times the mass of those which could be carried in the US shuttle’s payload bay, and carry them without the need to put a crew at risk. This capability would have been ideal for launching space station modules, large reconnaissance and communication satellites, and interplanetary science missions. On such missions, the US shuttle spent three quarters of its payload capacity on wings and wheels which weren’t used except in the last minutes of the mission, and life support and facilities for a crew which had little to do with regard to the payload other than push a button to release it.
Unlike the US shuttle’s solid rocket boosters which, once lit, could not be throttled or shut down, Energiya’s four liquid boosters could be throttled to adjust acceleration for the mission profile and cut off in emergency situations, increasing the survivability of launch accidents. Had the anticipated recovery and reuse of the boosters worked, it would probably have been much more cost effective than fishing solid boosters out of the sea and refurbishing them.
Unlike the US shuttle, which was sold to Congress and the Air Force on the basis of a promise to replace all existing expendable launchers and dramatically reduce the cost of launching payloads, Energiya was seen as a heavy-lift launcher which would be reserved for payloads which required its unique capabilities and Buran for crewed missions to assemble and maintain space stations and change out their crews.
Energiya-Buran was one of the most ambitious and magnificent engineering projects of the space programs of any nation, involving massive research and development, manufacturing, testing, integrated mission simulation, crew training, and flight testing programs.
The program came to a simultaneously triumphant and tragic end: the Energiya booster and the Energiya-Buran shuttle system performed flawless missions. (The first Energiya launch failed to put its payload into orbit, but this was due to a software error in the payload [Polyus].) On November 15, 1988, the second Energiya launched Buran (OK-1K1) into orbit. No crew was on board: the mission was flown by the orbiter’s computers. After maneuvering to a higher orbit, two orbits were completed, and then the maneuvering system was used to de-orbit. An autonomous re-entry was flown, with a perfect landing on the runway at Baikonur Cosmodrome despite a strong crosswind.
And then, in the best tradition not only of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union but of the British Conservative Party in 1971, this singular success was rewarded by cancellation of the entire program. Energiya never flew again. Buran was destroyed in 2002 when the roof of the hangar in which it was being stored collapsed.
As an engineer, I have almost unlimited admiration for my ex-Soviet and Russian colleagues who did such masterful work and who will doubtless advance technology in the future to the benefit of us all. We should celebrate the achievement of those who created this magnificent space transportation system, undone by the collapse of a fatally flawed and destructive economic and political system.
Hendrickx, Bart and Bert Vis. Energiya-Buran. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2007. ISBN 978-0-387-69848-9.
Here is a documentary about the Energiya-Buran program with film which only became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The narration is in heavily accented English, overdubbed in French. Sorry—one must work with what’s available.
Here is a silent video with other launch views of Energiya-Buran.
The following videos, with tacky music, show Energiya and Buran footage I’ve not seen elsewhere.
Note how the first launch of Energiya with Polyus almost ended badly when it veered off course moments after liftoff. Got better!
Spaceplane orbital bombardment!