Friday, 29 November 2013

Buran: triumph and tragedy of the Russian space shuttle

Another anniversary! It's 25 years since the first and last space flight of the Soviet Space Shuttle, Buran (Russian for snowstorm). An audacious copy of the American Space Shuttle, the Soviet's version of  a"reusable" spacecraft was, in many respects, technically superior and took only 10 years to develop (compared to 15 years for NASA's shuttle).  

It was an example of the triumph of Soviet technical know-how and expertise in the space race.  It was first space shuttle to perform an unmanned flight, including landing in fully automatic mode. The ability to fly the shuttle into space, have it perform two orbits then land it on a runway - meters from its intended destination, all on autopilot, demonstrated the technical brilliance of the scientists employed in the space program. 

This is how the old Soviet new agency TASS (Telegraph Agency Sovietsky Soyuz) announced it:

"November 15, 1988 was marked by the formidable success of the Buran space shuttle flight in Soviet Union. After the departure of the Energia launcher and Buran shuttle, the orbital shuttle was placed on its orbit, made two rotations around the Earth and finally landed on the cosmodrome at Baikonur . . . . . .It is the extraordinary outcome of the technology and science of our nation, opening a new way in the Soviet program for the space studies.  It was the first and until now the only landing in automatic mode of a shuttle in the history of the aerospace. This new and outstanding fact in the space conquest was gained brilliantly by the science and Soviet technology."

The automatic unmanned flight did, however, mask a serious flaw in Buran's design.  Although it was intended to carry as many as ten crew members, including four pilots, there was no room for life support systems on the shuttle, so they had no choice but to fly it in auto-mode.

Perhaps the Soviet electronics industry, driven primarily by military considerations, did not have the commercial impetus towards miniaturisation that their western counterpart did, and so could not shrink all that sophisticated equipment to a size suitable for a manned shuttle flight. 

I vaguely remember an old Russian joke which was a wry comment on the Soviet's obsession with gigantism in their propaganda: The USSR has created a new microchip – it's the biggest in the world!

A full size mock up which resides in Gorky Park, Moscow

The tragedy was that it was not economically viable for commercial use and, thanks to the end of the Cold War, its military role was surplus to requirements. The collapse of the Soviet Union effectively brought an end to the Cold War, but it was the consequent economic dislocation and squeeze on budgets in the new shrunken Russian state, which ultimately put paid to the Soviet space shuttle program. 

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