Science & Technology

What Was the Buran Shuttle? Learn About the Soviet Union’s Progressive Space Shuttle

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 13, 2019 • 4 min read

Anyone with a passing interest in space is likely familiar with the Apollo, Enterprise, and Columbia space shuttles. Lesser known is the Buran shuttle, the crowning achievement of the Soviet space program, which many engineers and historians believe was one of the most technologically progressive and versatile space vehicles ever made.

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What Was the Buran Space Shuttle?

The Buran space shuttle was a spaceplane developed by the Soviet Union as part of the Buran program. The Buran shuttle was created in response to NASA’s space shuttle program and made its first—and only flight in 1988.

What Are the Origins of the Buran Program?

When the U.S. space shuttle program launched the Shuttle Columbia for the first time in 1981, the USSR took notice. The Cold War wasn’t over yet, and the Soviets believed that a United States reusable spacecraft could pose a military threat due to its large payload bay.

They also believed that a U.S. shuttle could be used to capture Soviet satellites or deliver a nuclear first strike. The Kremlin quietly authorized the development of a Soviet space shuttle program—called the Buran program—and Soviet engineers began working on the Buran space shuttle.

What Was the Purpose of the Buran Space Shuttle?

The stated purpose of the Buran project was to enhance pride in the Soviet space program, conduct research, and help resupply the Mir space station. However, the Soviet space agency also hoped to eventually use the Buran for military purposes, including weapons delivery.

Learn more about the Mir space station and its impact on human space exploration here.

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What Are the Key Differences Between the Buran Space Shuttle and U.S. Space Shuttles?

Valentin Glushko and his team of Soviet engineers intended to design a shuttle that was completely different than the United States space shuttles. However, as they conducted wind tunnel experiments and scale model test flights, they determined that many elements of NASA’s design were ideal.

Though the Buran shuttle shared many components with its American shuttle counterparts, including the use of hydrogen fuel cells, the Buran contained many unique mechanisms:

  • Energia. The Buran shuttle featured a super-heavy rocket called the Energia (or Energiya) that consisted of four boosters and a core stage. The Energia rocket served as the launch vehicle for the Buran orbiter, which differed from the U.S. space shuttles’ use of integrated main engines. Though this made the Soviet space shuttle less reusable than the U.S. space shuttle orbiter (since the Soviet shuttle would lose its main engines after each flight), it had the advantage of being able to carry three times as much cargo. The Soviets believed that such a payload capacity could eventually help achieve a manned lunar base or perhaps a manned mission to Mars.
  • Control system. As opposed to the U.S. shuttle boosters, each of the Energia’s boosters contained their own navigation and control systems. That meant that they could function as launch vehicles individually to deliver less heavy payloads.
  • Automated flight system. The Buran space shuttle orbiter also contained a fully automated flight system, which meant that it could launch, orbit, and return without any crew. This would theoretically make the Buran capable of performing rescue missions for space stations or another stranded orbiter.
  • Liquid propellant. The Energia’s boosters were powered by liquid propellant (as opposed to the solid propellant used by the space shuttle). Furthermore, the booster rockets were not segmented in the construction process, which meant that they were not vulnerable to the same leakage that ultimately doomed NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger.

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What Happened to the Buran?

The Orbiter K1 Buran launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport launch pad in southern Kazakhstan on November 15, 1988. The space shuttle orbiter completed two orbits around the Earth. After its orbital flight, the test flight concluded when it achieved reentry and performed an automated landing on the runway.

The Buran’s first launch also proved to be its last, as the project was suspended due to lack of funds and political turmoil in the Soviet Union. The cost of the Buran, which was significantly more expensive to produce than the Soyuz rocket, ultimately resulted in the abandonment of the program. Construction of the Ptichka—the second Buran-class orbiter—was never completed.

What Was Buran’s Significance in Space History?

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The Buran project resulted in the creation of one of the most powerful, technologically advanced space boosters in history. Were it not for the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing economic crisis that resulted in the abandonment of the Buran project, many space enthusiasts feel that Russia might have the capability to establish a lunar base or even send humans to Mars.

Want to Learn More About Space Exploration?

Whether you’re a budding astronautical engineer or simply want to become more informed about the science of space travel, learning about the rich and detailed history of human space flight is essential to understanding how space exploration has advanced. In Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass on space exploration, the former commander of the International Space Station provides invaluable insight into what it takes to explore space and what the future holds for humans in the final frontier. Chris also talks about the science of space travel, life as an astronaut, and how flying in space will forever change the way you think about living on Earth.

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