White Elephant

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

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

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.”

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.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus