Sunday, November 16, 2008

Soviet-era Buran could replace NASA space shuttle

Twenty years ago yesterday the Buran (shown landing at left), the Soviet Union's answer to the American-made NASA space shuttle system, launched from Kazakhstan for its first test flight. It wound up being its only mission to date. A few years later the fall of communism left the program in limbo. The only flight-worthy Buran was destroyed during a roof collapse at the Baikonur facility in 2002, although a number of others were already in production and one is currently on display in a museum in Germany.

But with the space shuttle fleet due to be retired in less than two years, Russia Today is reporting that interest is being rekindled in the Buran system for use as a service vehicle for the International Space Station and perhaps other purposes as well. Despite its visual similarity to the American space shuttle, the Buran was in many ways the superior vehicle (the feature that its designers were most proud of is that it can be launched and landed un-manned). And the Energia booster system that was developed parallel to the Buran is an absolute beast of a launch vehicle: it's said to be powerful enough to send a payload to Mars. Click here for more comparisons between the American shuttle and the Russian Buran.

I would love to see the Buran finally get some serious use... and achieve the appreciation that I've long thought was due her and her creators. I've been a devout student of the Russian space effort for well over a decade, ever since I made it the topic of my senior history thesis while at Elon (and I ended up presenting my research about it at a national conference in Rochester, New York). In spite of how screwy and completely wrong the the Soviet government was, the scientists and engineers who were forced to live under that regime still had a total passion for technical achievement (often in defiance of how much the Soviet bureaucrats got in their way: do some research on how Kruschev screwed-up a lot of Sergei Korolev's projects). Buran is a terrific vehicle and now at last she has a chance to soar and shine.


Anonymous said...

I found an interesting website about the Buran-Energia project:

Chris Knight (Hotcat) said...

a couple lessons learned from the shuttle: reusable isn't really all that reusable, the reprocessing of the shuttle is costly and time-consuming. And it's a bad idea to have the space vehicle on the side, as debris (foam, ice, etc) comes a-flyin' down (see the NOVA episode on the Columbia disaster, excellent show FYI.)