The Soviet-era Buran space programme, mothballed 20 years ago, may be revived. With NASA about to retire its ageing fleet of space shuttles, there is a pressing need for viable space transport
Two decades ago the Soviet space shuttle Buran blasted off on its first and only orbital flight. Just a few years later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the programme was shelved.
The Buran was the Soviet Union's answer to NASA’s space shuttle programme. On November 15, 1988, the shuttle was propelled out of the Earth’s atmosphere by the specially designed Energia booster rocket from the Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan.
Pavel Sharov from Cosmonauts News Magazine explains the advantages the Soviets had over their rivals in the U.S.
“The USSR surpassed the Americans in technology – U.S. shuttles can only be landed by humans, while the Buran lands automatically,” Sharov said.
Magomet Talboev was one of the pilots who test-flew the shuttle without going into orbit. He said the Soviet authorities had high hopes for the multi-billion dollar spacecraft.
The Energia-Buran programme was started to get the capability to attack the United States, just like the shuttle was able to attack the USSR. We also wanted to take the Skylab space station from orbit. Buran was supposed to put it in its cargo bay and deliver it back to Earth for studies,” Tolboev said.
But the project was scrapped before these plans could be fulfilled. They sank aalong with the Soviet regime. The Energia-Buran became one of the Soviet Union's last super-projects. Billions of dollars were invested and more than a 1.5 million people worked to design and build it. Nevertheless, the Buran went into orbit only once before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After nearly a decade in a hangar, the only Buran that went into space was destroyed when a roof collapsed at Baikonur launch facility in 2002.
Although the Buran project ended prematurely, not all the ideas from it were left buried. Some of the technologies developed at the time are now used in everyday life. Fore example, several heat-resistant materials used to make deep-fryers are a direct result of the research done during Buran's development.
Buran technologies may make an unexpected return to the space industry as well.
Because NASA will soon retire its ageing space shuttle fleet, some American and Russian scientists are beginning to think of ways to revive the Buran programme.
It may be more economical than developing an entirely new spacecraft from scratch.