How the Soviet Buran space shuttle helped the United States win the cold war.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2003
(Page 3 of 5)
A gentle rain outside his open window began lashing down a bit harder. With the agility of a 40-year-old, he got up, crossed the room, passed his hand across the windowsill to feel for moisture, and decided to leave the window open. He looked up at the dingy Moscow sky and made a wish for the future. “Efficiency,” he said, “should be considered above all else as we develop more vehicles for space travel.”
Igor Volk holds the distinction of being the only Soviet to orbit Earth and not be rewarded with a car. His oftproffered opinions on the problems with the Soviet space program cost him the new black Volga four-door he would have received after the 1984 Soyuz T-12 flight. He was, however, named cosmonaut-in-charge of Buran flight testing. “Hypocrites and fools from a dozen ministries ran the Buran program,” Volk asserts. “It was an honor with very little real meaning attached to it.” Then he adds, as if trying to dismiss the memory: “I’ve flown many more interesting aircraft than the Buran.” Volk’s nickname is “Red Wolf.” A ruddy, affable, and articulate man, he is still ready and willing at age 65 to continue his career as a test pilot. But, he laments, “there are no new planes to test.”
During his career Volk performed hundreds of dead-stick landings in all kinds of weather and all kinds of aircraft, sometimes in direct defiance of his superior’s orders. He never ejected from or lost an airplane. His experience in flying more than 120 types of aircraft made him the leading candidate to test fly the Buran to evaluate how it glided, approached, flared, landed, and rolled out.
Volk knew before most people working on the program that it was doomed. He recalls a drunken boss exclaiming to him at a social gathering in 1988, “It would be great if we had an accident on the orbital flight. That would give us a good, plausible reason to cancel the program.” Volk says now that he never fully trusted the amalgam of components contributed by different ministries and organizations. He was only the 11th person to be awarded the Revoredo Trophy for outstanding contributions to aviation, and his vast experience with prototypes made him worry about the Buran’s cockpit. After one early test, he remembers, he couldn’t open the hatch and had to exit through the vehicle’s fuel tank. The technical problems would always be solved, but his uneasiness remained.
The ignominy of spending years wringing out a vehicle designed to eliminate human input still raises Volk’s ire. He flew the full-size atmospheric prototype, which was outfitted with four 18,000-pound-thrust Lyulka jet engines, on more than half of its 24 flights. The first landings were manual. Then, over successive flights, Volk gradually relinquished control to the auto-land software, until the last few landings were accomplished by computer alone. At that point, Volk says, his interest in the Buran project waned.
For the people who worked on it, this was another of the program’s bitter ironies. The first contingent of nine cosmonauts assigned to Buran in 1977, a year before NASA hired its first shuttle astronauts, included some of the most accomplished test pilots in the Soviet Union—and, in the case of Igor Volk, the world. But their job was to serve as understudies in a vehicle designed to require no human input.
Most of the first Buran cosmonauts were employees of the Gromov Institute, outside Moscow, Russia’s premier center for flight research, while others came from the Institute of Experimental Flight, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. Volk and Rimantas Stankiavicius, who also was picked in 1977, were the two main pilots for the series of atmospheric flights conducted between 1985 and 1988. Three teams of two pilots made 24 short-approachand-landing flights in a full-scale Buran prototype. But when the vehicle finally reached orbit strapped on the back of the giant Energia rocket, the pilots stayed home. And that may stand as Buran’s single unique accomplishment: It returned from its two orbits and landed like a conventional airplane, controlled entirely by computers. The Buran’s auto-land software, though kluged together, worked perfectly on its one and only space mission.
Sergei Krikalev became a cosmonaut in 1985 and has gone on to become perhaps the most experienced space traveler alive (see “The Captain, the Pro, and the Fighter Pilot,” Feb./Mar. 2000). He recalls watching the Buran’s flawless launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome. November 15, 1988, dawned with a storm front from the Aral Sea moving across southern Kazakhstan. Energia’s launch had been put off several times, and officials declared that this would be the day, despite the clouds, wind, and 40-degree-Fahrenheit temperature. Liftoff occurred at 6:00 a.m.