White Elephant

How the Soviet Buran space shuttle helped the United States win the cold war.

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WHEN VICTOR ZABOLOTSKY, A TEST PILOT WHO ONCE TRAINED TO FLY the Soviet Buran space shuttle, thinks back on the project that dominated his working life for nearly a decade, he figures some good came of it despite Buran’s cancellation. “We lose three or four test pilots every year, so wasting all that time probably helped me survive that career,” Zabolotsky says wryly. Before and after his years training for the Buran, Zabolotsky flew more than 70 kinds of aircraft. “My daughter, Margarita, was recruited to be a cosmonaut,” he continues. “And after what she observed—my distrust of the bosses and the way they treated me—she declined to join the cosmonaut corps. So the Buran may have kept me alive, and it helped my daughter find a career with a future.”

Like most Russians who worked on the Buran, Zabolotsky is still indignant about the experience. Pilots, scientists, engineers, and the technicians who built the vehicle all speak candidly, if a little diffidently, about what they see as a sophisticated, spectacular failure. It became for them the perfect symbol of a space program that had lost so much confidence that, at the behest of the Soviet military, it copied a U.S. vehicle for no reason other than to keep up with the competition.

But seen another way, Buran was an impressive technical accomplishment. In fact, you could say the Soviet spaceplane, which reached Earth orbit just once in 1988 and never returned to space, succeeded beyond all expectations and failed dismally—both on the same day.

We are ascending in a dimly lit elevator inside the Moscow headquarters of the Molniya Research and Industrial Corporation, once the Buran’s ultra-secret design bureau. Someone whispers, “Amerikanski journalist, it feels weird having you here.” I look up at the red numbers flashing enigmatically above the door—3…8…8…9—then back to 3 as the door opens on the 5th floor. I wonder if the numbers mislead passengers for reasons of secrecy, or if this is just one more thing in Russia that doesn’t work.

Like NASA’s space shuttle, Buran had its predecessors. Soviet space engineers had played with designs for mini-shuttles as far back as the 1960s. But it wasn’t until the United States decided in 1972 to build a spaceplane that its cold war rival took serious interest. “With two countries pointing thousands of ballistic missiles at one another, every move made toward developing space technology was regarded by the other as having military meaning,” recalls Alexander Bashilov, a 52-year-old aerospace engineer who is today Molniya’s director general. “In the early ’70s, when the U.S. began developing the space shuttle, naturally we assumed it would be used to deliver nuclear weapons, or as a sort of space pirate ship for shooting or stealing Soviet satellites. We had no choice but to respond.” So Buran, which means “snowstorm,” was born.

In his 1997 biography of Soviet rocket pioneer Sergei Korolev, U.S. space historian James Harford writes: “The USSR’s conviction that NASA was cloaking military space ventures in civilian clothing led to a misguided copycatting of the U.S. space shuttle.” NASA had actually conceived its shuttle as a way to reduce the cost of launching both military and civilian payloads into space. But according to Efraim Akim, a veteran Soviet space mission designer interviewed by Harford, the Soviets saw right away, based on their own calculations, that NASA’s cost projections were wildly optimistic. So they figured there must be another motive. Soviet military planners noted with alarm that a shuttle taking off from a planned launch pad in California could reach orbit and deliver a first strike against Soviet missile silos within minutes. By the logic of the cold war, the Russians had to have a shuttle too. Thus began the most wasteful venture the Soviet space program ever attempted.

With the same intensity that characterized the rivalry between the two superpowers, ministries within the Soviet Union fought one another to get a piece of the project and shape its direction. At its zenith, the Buran program employed more than 150,000 workers at more than 50 factories.

Stepan Mikoyan, the 80-year-old nephew of famed MiG jet designer Artem Mikoyan and himself a World War II veteran, test pilot, and aircraft designer, witnessed the waste firsthand as Molniya’s flight test director for Buran. Even today, no one can say exactly how much the vehicle cost to develop, he says. “The Central Committee would decide to do something like the Buran and then just throw rubles at it until it was done,” Mikoyan ecalls.

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.

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