How the Soviet Buran space shuttle helped the United States win the cold war.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2003
(Page 2 of 5)
Despite its resemblance to the U.S. shuttle, Mikoyan says Buran had one key difference that helped drive up its price tag—its ride into space was the massive Energia rocket. Capable of lifting more than 100 tons to a 110-mile circular orbit, the Energia was the brainchild of renowned rocket designer Valentin Glushko, general designer for the RSC Energia company. Twice awarded Hero of Socialist Labor medals, Glushko had been a major figure in Soviet rocketry since before World War II. Reportedly, his only real interest in Buran was that it was heavy enough to prove that Energia could lift more weight into space than any rocket yet developed. “The most important aspect of rocket design,” Glushko once bragged, “is the engine. A stick will fly into space with the right engine tied to it.”
Though Glushko considered Buran simply a dummy payload for a rocket that could someday be used for more glamorous expeditions, such as to the moon or Mars, the booster and the spaceplane wound up sharing the same fate. Just as Buran had no clear purpose other than to keep pace with the Americans, Energia had no job other than to lift the shuttle—or at least no job that a country going through a painful economic and political transition could afford. Says Mikoyan, “The chance of many such rockets appearing in Russia’s economic condition in the early 1990s was very small.” So Energia was launched only twice, and had no role after Buran’s debut in 1988.
Even before its lone spaceflight, there were plenty of signs that Buran had no future. “No other design agencies were developing satellites that could fit in the cargo bay,” says Igor Volk, the veteran cosmonaut who piloted Buran during its early atmospheric tests. “The main designers and builders couldn’t even decide whether to call it a spaceship or spaceplane. It was a perfect metaphor for the end of that period of stagnation.”
And yet, during the 1980s, the program continued at full throttle. A total of eight Buran “analog” vehicles were built at Molniya. Final assembly of these full-size models was undertaken a couple blocks away, at the Tushinskiy Mashinostroitelny factory. One analog, used for atmospheric and landing tests, was outfitted with turbojet engines that enabled it to take off from a runway. Two orbital models were loaded on barges and floated down the Moscow River to the Zhukovsky Aerodrome, where they were piggybacked onto a 3M-T cargo aircraft for transport to the Baikonur launch facility. The remaining analogs were used at Molniya for stress, vibration, and temperature tests.
Mikoyan, a compact, handsome man with a full head of wavy white hair, smiles and admits that the Soviet designers at Molniya learned everything they could about the U.S. shuttle as they developed their own version. Even though the recipe for ceramic tiles that protected parts of the vehicle from the heat of atmospheric reentry was “a problem that was solved slowly,” he says, the thermal protection system designed at Molniya was remarkably similar to NASA’s. “In other respects we studied and surpassed the shuttle design in such components as ejection seats for the flight crew,” Mikoyan says. These were designed to work for pressure-suited cosmonauts up to an altitude of about 30 miles.
That the shuttle and Buran look nearly identical proves only that any group of aeronautical engineers will arrive at similar designs for aircraft with similar purposes, say the Russian designers. “The Ilyushin and Boeing passenger jets look alike to the uncritical eye,” said Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, the former director of Molniya, who worked on Russian paceplane designs in the 1960s. “That doesn’t mean they were copies of each other.”
Lozinsky passed away last November at the age of 91, but when I met him in Moscow a few months earlier, he looked sword-thin and fit and was still walking 40 minutes to work every morning. He was spending his days designing yet another reusable spaceplane, this one to be launched from an “aerial cosmodrome”—an Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft.
On the wall behind Lozinsky’s desk hung tinted photographs of Vladimir Lenin and Anastas Mikoyan, Stepan Mikoyan’s father and a lifelong Communist party member and Politburo figure. “Those two men made a man out of me,” Lozinsky said. He survived the purges of Stalin and navigated the intricacies of Soviet cold war politics. “In the days of Korolev,” he said, his pallid face reddening, “we had one boss. Everyone took their orders from him, and programs progressed swiftly and logically. When we lost sight of efficiency, we lost our ability to justify this expense.” A strong personality, Lozinky was not shy about dispensing advice. “Americans have lost sight of efficiency,” he warned. “They should be looking at an aerial cosmodrome for less expensive launches.”