Soviet Buran Program
The Buran shuttle program (also known as the VKK Space Orbiter program – Buran or “Буран” in Russian means “Snowstorm“) was the biggest and most expensive undertaking ever in Soviet space exploration. The program began in 1974 in response to the NASA Space Shuttle program (apparently initially due to the suspicion it could be put to military use by the United States) but did not truly come into space operation until 1988 and was formally suspended in 1993 due to rising costs that could not be sustained following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (a programme cost of 16.4 billion rubles by 1992). According to Buran-Energia.com, the most significant Soviet scientific and industrial centres took part in the program, involving more than 1 million people from 1,286 companies and 86 ministries and departments who worked directly on Buran over an 18 year period.
NPO Molniya Research and Industrial Corporation was formed in 1976 to develop the Buran shuttle under the lead of Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, General Director of NPO Molniya. In coordination with the reusable space vehicle, NPO Energia with chief architect Valentin Glushko worked on the development of the expendable Energia rocket system.
Like the NASA Space Shuttle, the Buran shuttle was intended to be able to deploy payloads into space such as a satellite, space station components etc. then be able to return to Earth. Later it could be launched to conduct maintenance and repairs on the payloads deployed into space and even return them to Earth (it could deploy a payload of 30 tonnes and return with 20 tonnes).
There is no real surprise that the Buran shuttle has a striking physical resemblance to the NASA Space Shuttle as it was developed after the NASA program had commenced and the basic Space Shuttle design was one of sound aerodynamics. Space Shuttle Enterprise, the first orbiter was built in 1976 but was used for approach and landing tests and did not go into orbit. Space Shuttle Columbia completed the first orbital test flight on April 12th, 1981 and the first operational flight with a crew of 4 on November 11th, 1982.
Despite the physical similarities there are significant differences between the Soviet and NASA shuttles. Firstly the avionics and flight systems of Buran were all of Soviet design and Buran had an auto-pilot system that enabled it to conduct unmanned missions if required (unique for a reusable spacecraft), a higher payload capacity (Buran 30 tonnes, NASA Space Shuttle approximately 25 tonnes), stronger heat shielding and unlike the Space Shuttle which glided back to Earth, Buran’s two rear engines enabled it to fly during re-entry into the atmosphere (all benefits of years of watching Space Shuttle operations no doubt). The main launch rockets for Buran were on the heavy lift expendable Energia launch system (Energia or “Энергия” in Russian means “Energy“) rather than primarily on the shuttle itself (the Energia launcher had four liquid-propellant rockets on the first stage, whereas the Space Shuttle had two solid-rocket boosters on the launcher as well as three main launch engines on the shuttle itself). NASA Space Shuttle missions typically had a crew of 4 to 8, Buran could have a crew of 2 to 4 and carry up to 6 additional passengers in the crew compartment if required.
Prior to conducting an orbital space flight the Buran program included launching BOR-4 unpiloted rocket planes to test heat shields and carbon components that would be used on Buran shuttles (7 were produced and 4 confirmed orbital flights were conducted between 1982 and 1984, they would re-enter the atmosphere and be recovered at sea – a 1:2 scale spacecraft developed from the earlier and abandoned Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 “Spiral” spaceplane project started in 1965 and canceled in 1978, after 8 test flights, in favour of Buran), sending BOR-5 test vehicles on multiple sub-orbital test flights – they were basically miniature dummy shuttles to test aerodynamics (5 launches) and atmospheric flights of the OK-GLI aerodynamic prototype (more information below) to help develop the program to achieve space flight. Only one Buran shuttle left the Earths atmosphere though.
On November 15th, 1988 Buran OK-1K1 (Orbiter K1, construction completed in 1986) was launched and completed one unmanned orbital spaceflight (which lasted just over 3 hours) before landing safely (the Buran used the expendable Energia rocket as a launch system which was discarded prior to reaching orbit). Although future flights were planned from 1991 to 1994, OK-1K1 never went into orbit again nor did the other orbiters that were under construction. A sad end to the project for all the Soviet scientists and engineers who had put in so much hard work and effort to develop Buran!
The NASA Space Shuttles were ultimately in operation for 30 years from 1981 to 2011. Sadly two were lost (Challenger was lost due to a failure of one of the solid-rocket boosters following its launch in 1986 and Columbia lost during re-entry due to a damaged carbon-carbon leading edge of the wing in 2003) which given the Energia launching system and stronger heat shielding of Buran may have proven a safer method in the long-term. The Soviets may well have developed a better shuttle but alas we will never really know.
Unfortunately Buran OK-1K1 was destroyed on May 12th, 2002 when the hangar it was stored in collapsed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 8 workers were also sadly killed in the incident.
Other Buran programme vehicles are still stored or on display at the Baikonur Cosmodrome (some in a sad state) including OK-1K2 nicknamed Ptichka “Little Bird” which was the second orbiter that was scheduled for unmanned space flights in 1991 and 1992 (constructed in 1988). Other Buran vehicles include OK-1M an airframe and shake test bed article (built in 1982) and OK-4M (OK-MT) an engineering mockup (built in 1983).
In Russia there are a number of other Buran program space vehicles including three second series shuttles intended for space flight but not fully constructed – OK-2K1 (construction started in 1991, 30-50% completed), OK-2K2 (construction started in 1991, 10-20% completed) and OK-2K3 (construction started in 1988 but was never completed – parts are all over the world now no doubt!). Other structural test shuttles and mockups can also be found in Russia including OK-3M electrical test article (built in 1982) and OK-7M (OK-TVA) structural test article which was in Gorky Park, Moscow when I was in Russia in 2007 but is now restored and displayed at the All-Russia Exhibition Center in Moscow.
The Buran OK-GLI (Orbital’nyy Korabl’dlya Gorizontal’nykh Lotnykh Ispytaniy – “orbital vehicle for horizontal test flights”), also known as OK-2M and Buran Analog BST-02 was a aerodynamic prototype test shuttle (“Buran aerodynamic analogue”) in the Soviet Space Program. Constructed in 1984, Buran OK-GLI was never intended to go into space, it was fitted with four AL-31 turbofan engines to enable it to fly under it’s own power. Manned by a crew of 2 (Commander and pilot) OK-GLI completed 9 taxi tests and 24 atmospheric test flights (15 of which were landed with the automatic flight mode) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome between November 1985 and April 1988, and was then retired. The program provided valuable data on flight control for the Buran OK-1K1 shuttle.
OK-GLI seems to have then spent the next decade in storage at the Gromov Flight Research Institute near Moscow, only appearing again on static display at the MAKS-1999 air show. It was then sold to the Buran Space Corporation in Sydney for display in a temporary structure during the 2000 Sydney Olympics (shipped in February 2000 and on display until September 2000).
This is where I first saw Buran OK-GLI on a trip to Sydney in 2000. Back then you could not only walk around it but also view the cargo bay and enter the cockpit (for a fee). The Ukrainian guy that took my up there got me to sit down in the cockpit, gave me an overview of the controls, then we did an engine fire drill. Yelling at me to put it out, I had to decipher the Cyrillic writing to find the fire extinguisher switches! Luckily I selected correctly and we survived the drill (when in doubt flip the red switches)! Fun times!
The story of Buran OK-GLI then got messy. It was apparently planned to tour it around Australia but the Buran Space Corporation went into bankruptcy and from September 2000 to early 2004 due to a period of unfortunate financial and legal limbo it was stored outdoors with just some tarps covering it!
From 2004 to 2007 OK-GLI ended up in Bahrain and was in legal limbo over its ownership so sat in open storage once again (a bit drier there luckily). Once resolved the team behind the Technik Museums in Sinsheim and Speyer finally won ownership in 2007 and OK-GLI was shipped to Germany and restored. Since 2008 OK-GLI has resided in the excellent Technik Museum Speyer in Germany. A place long on my bucket list, I finally made it there in December 2015.
The first thing that strikes you when you see a Buran shuttle or even a NASA Space Shuttle is the size of these space vehicles. Buran OK-GLI is 36 metres long, 16 metres high and weighs about 80 tonnes (massive)!
Today, despite all its trials, Buran OK-GLI is in great condition and you can walk up a gantry to look into the cargo bay as well as get great 360° views of the shuttle from ground level and above. Alas now the cockpit can only be viewed through very scratched Perspex. It is hard to believe I once sat in there!
There is also a BOR-5 test vehicle on display at Speyer. The BOR-5 is a 1:8 scale model of the Buran shuttle and was used for testing the aerodynamic structure of the Buran shuttle and flight parameters for the control system. BOR is Russian for Bespilotny Orbitalny Raketoplan = Unmanned Oribital Rocket Aircraft.
The BOR-5 fitted with an auto pilot, measuring instruments and sensors was launched into sub-orbital flight via a Kosmos 2M-RB5 rocket. Five BOR-5 test vehicles were launched from Kapustin Yar in Russia between 1984 and 1988 (at least 4 were recovered but they were not re-flown). Just like the OK-GLI, the data gathered from such flights were invaluable to the development of the Buran program.
The BOR-5 at Speyer was launched on June 27th, 1988 reaching a suborbital ceiling of 210 km and flew in a glide for a distance of 2,000 km before the parachute deployed for its descent back to Earth. The heat from re-entry from space seems to have taken its toll on the BOR-5 mini-shuttle but it made it!
It is fantastic to see such integral artifacts from the Soviet space program. During the Cold War these were the types of things you mainly just read about, perhaps with a glimpse of a grainy photo or two. To see them in person and take it all in is something else!
To top it off, there are other Soviet space travel equipment on display at Speyer. These include a Soyuz capsule and various space suits that were used by Soviet Cosmonauts and those from east European allied nations such as East Germany and other socialist nations under the Interkosmos Soviet Space Program (designed to help the Soviet Union’s allies with manned and unmanned space missions along with boosting Soviet relations with those nations).
Cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, an East German Air Force pilot and Major General, became the first German to fly in space as part of the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos program when on August 26th, 1978 he was launched aboard Soyuz 31 to the Salyut 6 space station. He conducted various experiments aboard the space station, returning to Earth aboard Soyuz 29 on September 3, 1978, having spent almost 8 days in space.
If you are in south-west Germany you cannot miss this museum. Spend a day there and you wont regret it!