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Buran - The Soviet Shuttle
January 23, 2011 7:04 AM   Subscribe

In 1976, in response to NASA's development of the Space Shuttle, the USSR began it's own reusable launcher program, the Buran (Snowstorm), based at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan.

Believing the primary use of the US Shuttle to be that of a missile carrier, the Soviets developed their own resusable space system, the Buran - Energia throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. Principal design differences included the fact that the Energia booster system could be used independently of the Buran Shuttle vehicle and that the Buran boasted an automatic landing system.

It was only launched once (unmanned), on November 15th 1988, and it completed 2 orbits and landed safely back at site 251. (avi of landing, Google map of launch site, Google map of landing site).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the program was officially abandoned in 1992, although incorrect rumours of its revival circulated in 2001. These were definitively quashed in 2002 when the roof of the assembly and processing building at Site 112 collapsed due to lack of funds to pay repair teams.

Although the Cosmodrome is still in use for Soyuz launches to the ISS, Site 110, once the heart of the Soviet Space program, now sits decaying and unused.

(Previously)
posted by jontyjago (49 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
God, this makes me sad.

That looks like the Ruins-Of-Detroit version of the rocketship future I was promised as a child.
posted by mhoye at 7:08 AM on January 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


Shame it didn't fly more and that the Russians decided it was useless.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:31 AM on January 23, 2011


That's because the fundamental design of the Space Shuttle is equally flawed. It's trying to do too many things for too many different agencies, and ends up doing none of them particularly well. It's a brilliant design for completely contradictory goals; the fact that it works even as well as it does is remarkable.

When the Russians realized the Space Shuttle really wasn't a weapon delivery device, their scientists most likely told them the whole concept was a turkey, and should be scrapped.
posted by Malor at 7:42 AM on January 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


That's because the fundamental design of the Space Shuttle is equally flawed.

Some of the better writing on that topic can be found here.
posted by mhoye at 8:04 AM on January 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


Great post. I remember being disappointed that the Buran looks so much like the US shuttle. The older Soviet spacecraft designs were so wildly science fictional looking with their punk parts-bin esthetic that this one was a bit of a letdown.

And how pathetic is it that after the shuttle retires, the only way to get Americans in space will be via the almost fifty year old Soyuz craft?
posted by octothorpe at 8:05 AM on January 23, 2011


That looks like the Ruins-Of-Detroit version of the rocketship future I was promised as a child.

Look on the bright side--this way we can still get Russian Space Robocop.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:13 AM on January 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


God, this makes me sad.

That looks like the Ruins-Of-Detroit version of the rocketship future I was promised as a child.
Why? The shuttle was a stupid idea and the Russians probably realized it once they built one. Unlike us, they decided not to waste money on it.

Right now the Russians have a far more efficient space program and their Soyuz system is the main way to get to the ISS.

I have no idea why people in the U.S. are so attached to the shuttle. Maybe because I was born in '80 and my first memory of the space program was the Challenger crash i don't really have any sentimental attachment to it. I think it just looks ridiculous.
posted by delmoi at 8:34 AM on January 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Can somebody much smarter than me tell me why we don't launch manned/unmanned spacecraft from an aircraft flying at high altitude? Kinda like when we were trying to break the sound barrier. Wouldn't that be more efficient and relatively safer than giant rockets going straight up?
posted by punkfloyd at 8:38 AM on January 23, 2011


IIRC, the Buran launch complex. was also the launch pad for the ill-fated N-1 Soviet moon rocket.
posted by Mcable at 8:43 AM on January 23, 2011


Can somebody much smarter than me tell me why we don't launch manned/unmanned spacecraft from an aircraft flying at high altitude?

We do.
posted by Mcable at 8:46 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


If the Russians' Beatles-era space hardware designs are still working, why not keep using them? The engineers know every little quirk about them, and they've been proven reliable. It's not like Soyuz shots are using fifty-year-old capsules and boosters. They're using new capsules and boosters based on a fifty-year tradition of refining and upgrading them to be the world's only reliable method of manned space launch.

I say we pull as many Apollo engineers as we can find out of mothballs and nursing homes, Space Cowboys-style and resurrect our most successful manned space platform ever. We even have proven tech to dock with the Russian gear. Either that, or we license Soyuz for our own manned launches, and focus on building a new Ridiculously Heavy Booster for unmanned payloads.
posted by LiteOpera at 8:46 AM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


punkfloid: That's how Space Ship One was launched, and in fact NASA does have a Jet that can carry the shuttle for trips around the country.

The basic advantage of a Jet over a rocket is that with a Jet, you only need to carry the fuel and not the oxidizer. So you need to carry a lot less mass. But, the question is 1) can you suck in enough air quickly enough to give you enough lift to accelerate the payload fast enough to get into orbit. Remember, to get into space isn't that hard. The hard part is getting into orbit which requires a lot of speed. (Space ship one just went straight up: and then straight back down. That's not very useful for a space station)

And the other thing is: even if we can suck in air quickly enough, do we have a large enough jet? The huge rockets we use can lift a tons and tons of payload. I doubt you could do the same thing with an A380.

Remember with a multi-stage rocket you essentially use one rocket to lift the thing to a certain height, then the next rocket takes over. If you use a jet, you're really just replacing one stage with a jet stage. Is it really worth it? I'm not sure. Rockets are probably a lot simpler then jet engines. All you have to do is mix the fuel, whereas with a jet you have to compress air on the fly to serve as an oxidizer.
posted by delmoi at 8:50 AM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also the Pegasus rocket which does launch off a jet only has a payload of 979 pounds. If you want to do a manned flight with that, it would be tough. A human weighing 180 pounds, plus a space suit weighing 109 pounds leaves just just 690 pounds for the return vehicle. Maybe it could be done... I'm not sure I would want to try it :P
posted by delmoi at 8:59 AM on January 23, 2011


(Pegasus rocket was the one Mcable linked too)
posted by delmoi at 8:59 AM on January 23, 2011


I say we pull as many Apollo engineers as we can find out of mothballs and nursing homes, Space Cowboys-style and resurrect our most successful manned space platform ever.

No need, SpaceX is already reimplementing the classic space program.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:07 AM on January 23, 2011


The shuttle was a stupid idea and the Russians probably realized it once they built one.

I wish I could find a reference, but I read once (probably in something by James Oberg) that the Soviets built their shuttle because the Americans had one. There were lots of things that didn't make sense to them, but the opinion was, well, the Americans did it this way, so there must be a good reason. Only as they got deeper and deeper into the project did they realize the Americans had done a lot of things for political reasons, and they were copying their mistakes.

At least the Russians made one very smart change in the design that could have worked well for them...The main engines were on the bottom of the fuel tank, not on the vehicle, which meant they got a heavy lifter as part of the deal. However, they were too broke after the shuttle development to do anything with it. Parts of it have been absorbed into other projects
posted by Mcable at 9:09 AM on January 23, 2011


Can somebody much smarter than me tell me why we don't launch manned/unmanned spacecraft from an aircraft flying at high altitude?

As Mccable pointed out, we do - but it really has to do with energy needed to get to orbit. For a small package to low earth orbit you can use a Pegasus - for lots'o'mass you need a lot more energy - and at present that translates to shitloads of fuel and oxidizer, which is pretty darn heavy when you get enough of it to get your payload to orbit. Add in the fact that you've got to have something to hold all that fuel/oxidizer, and it be sturdy enough to take the acceleration you want (and bearing in mind that the lower the acceleration you use the less weight your structure must bear but your fuel usage goes up like crazy since you take longer... so you need a larger structure so you need more fuel) you get to a point where you can't realistically air-launch something much larger than the Pegasus.

And they apparently plan their loads for a 9 to 13 G thrust. See Figure 4.4

Discussion of the whys of it here, with maths.
posted by JB71 at 9:10 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I liked this footnote on Buran from mhoye's linked article, 'A Rocket to Nowhere' (which I recommend):

The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design

posted by Auden at 9:13 AM on January 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Can somebody much smarter than me tell me why we don't launch manned/unmanned spacecraft from an aircraft flying at high altitude?

As others have pointed out, it can be done. The question then is ... should it be done? And the answer is, "Generally, no."

By flying the rocket up in an aircraft, you are adding enormously to the cost and the risk -- someone has to fly that aircraft, after all.

On the other hand, on the ground, we can light the fuse (so to speak) with everyone safely ensconced miles away.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:42 AM on January 23, 2011


Imagine how advanced robotics and communications would be if the main conclusion of the Apollo program was that the "manned" part of space flight sucked up too much of the budget for too little benefit, and we could accomplish much more with unmanned probes and satellites and rovers.

(Hu)manned spaceflight could have been deferred until the mechanics of the whole spaceflight thing were well developed and reasonably economical.
posted by fatbird at 9:44 AM on January 23, 2011


(Hu)manned spaceflight could have been deferred until the mechanics of the whole spaceflight thing were well developed and reasonably economical.

That's extremely short sighted, as the manned space program has produced numerous benefits to society.

The problem, IMO, is that this is always shaped as an either/or, manned vs unmanned. I'd be thrilled if NASA's budget was doubled to 34 billion (take it from the defense budget, PLEASE), with the stipulation that half goes to manned, the other to unmanned, or something like that. There's tons of good science being done with unmanned craft, hell, it's almost criminal that the US doesn't have multiple satellites around every planet in the system, along with rovers where appropriate. I wish there were satellites with the best and latest cameras aboard, just circling planets, shooting pictures that were publicly available.

As to the Shuttle, it should really be regarded as test plane. Now that it's been throughly used and put to work and seen failures, the concept should be reviewed and if it's still deemed worthy, then build new shuttles or a single one and don't make stupid compromises in the design and planning stage.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:08 AM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's extremely short sighted, as the manned space program has produced numerous benefits to society.

I don't dispute the benefits of the manned space program, but an unmanned program would almost certainly have its own benefits to society that spun off the program as well. The benefits of one technology program don't preclude the benefits of another.

The problem, IMO, is that this is always shaped as an either/or, manned vs unmanned.

The argument I keep hearing, and that I tend to agree with, is that manned space travel being so much more expensive, it tends to pauperize everything else because it needs vastly more money to accomplish the same thing, and being manned, it's the glory project that gets on TV. It sucks the oxygen out of the room no matter how big the room is.

Certainly, NASA has maintained unmanned development the whole time, but always as a fractional adjunct to its manned program. That's just bureaucratic politics.
posted by fatbird at 10:18 AM on January 23, 2011


ARCA (english) likes to launch from balloons, first with Stabilo to prepare for their Google Lunar X-Prize contender, HAAS (more). Doing so gets the whole thing above the majority of the atmosphere so they can use non-aerodynamic designs that save massive amounts of weight. Plus they look cool. One of the videos explains how they avoid the balloons. I think it's an offset launch so it misses the balloon.
posted by jwells at 10:19 AM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


That Haas orbital launcher looks like something you could get in an adult novelty store.
posted by Mister_A at 10:25 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's extremely short sighted, as the manned space program has produced numerous benefits to society.

I don't dispute the benefits of the manned space program, but an unmanned program would almost certainly have its own benefits to society that spun off the program as well. The benefits of one technology program don't preclude the benefits of another.


Furthermore, you certainly can dispute the benefits of the manned space program: "But the fact that the total NASA investment of $55 billion yielded a paltry $5 billion in true spinoffs, creating entirely new products or industries, suggests a very poor return of ten cents on the dollar."
posted by dd42 at 10:27 AM on January 23, 2011


Why? The shuttle was a stupid idea and the Russians probably realized it once they built one. Unlike us, they decided not to waste money on it.

Uhm, no? They had 4 vehicles under various stages of construction, and spent an inordinate amount of money on the program.

They stopped working on it because their country collapsed, and because the newly-formed Russian Federation had no money to speak of.

we pull as many Apollo engineers as we can find out of mothballs and nursing homes, Space Cowboys-style and resurrect our most successful manned space platform ever.

The capsule isn't necessarily the problem. By most accounts, that's the easy part. Building a rocket to strap it to is much, much harder. We can't exactly pull the Saturn V plans out of the library, and start building one. Most of the tooling has been destroyed, and includes 3rd-party parts that haven't been produced for several decades.

(That said, it's hard to argue that Soyuz isn't a good launch system. They haven't had a fatal accident in several decades. However, they've had two aborted launch failures, one which caused the capsule to plummet back to earth, and the other where the rocket exploded on the pad. The cosmonauts in the capsule walked away from both incidents, although popular legend goes that they destroyed the flight voice recorders on both, because they didn't want their supervisors hearing the amount of profanity being shouted in the capsule.)

By flying the rocket up in an aircraft, you are adding enormously to the cost and the risk -- someone has to fly that aircraft, after all.

Agreed on the first part, but not necessarily the second. We have the technology to fly unmanned planes, and several modern jetliners are for all intents and purposes completely autonomous. In the 1960s, we also had autopilot and ejector seats.

As others here have mentioned, Buran was fundamentally different from the Shuttle in several ways. It's not too much of a stretch to make the claim that it was flat-out better. The Russians, however, did very astutely choose to copy the aerodynamic design, given that aerodynamic design/testing is absurdly expensive and time-consuming, while NASA's design was known to work.
posted by schmod at 10:50 AM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


I say we pull as many Apollo engineers as we can find out of mothballs and nursing homes, Space Cowboys-style and resurrect our most successful manned space platform ever.

Good news, everyone!

Of course, it's quite likely it will die by a thousand cuts over the years.
posted by a small part of the world at 10:53 AM on January 23, 2011


Interestingly, the Chinese had a spy on the NASA shuttle program and his work convinced them a shuttle-style vehicle was horribly inefficient. They've stuck with a Soyuz-style capsule design.
posted by tommasz at 10:58 AM on January 23, 2011


If the Russians' Beatles-era space hardware designs are still working, why not keep using them?

That's fine but it's not exactly the result of a thought out decision, it's just that the Russian system is the only thing left. The US has known for thirty-five years how long the shuttle system would be operational and in all that time never managed to come up with a successor program.
posted by octothorpe at 11:09 AM on January 23, 2011


Working in aerospace is probably a lot like running Apple, or managing some massive and visible public works project: regardless of their actual level of expertise, everybody just knows that they could do a better job at it than you and aren't shy about letting you know.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:14 AM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


"But the fact that the total NASA investment of $55 billion yielded a paltry $5 billion in true spinoffs, creating entirely new products or industries, suggests a very poor return of ten cents on the dollar."

At first glance, that figure seems pretty low and wrong headed in it's analysis. It's looking at R&D investment instead of money and lives saved (or helped) from better insulation, cordless tools and water filters.

Thanks for the link, it's an interesting counter point, worth looking at more deeply.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:22 AM on January 23, 2011


Thanks for all the cool Soviet space stuff. Our space program and the Soviet program used to be very generous sending out informational packets. The Sovet ink smelled like egg noodles with butter for some reason.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:24 AM on January 23, 2011


Interestingly, the Chinese had a spy on the NASA shuttle program and his work convinced them a shuttle-style vehicle was horribly inefficient.

Could you clarify this statement, please? This information wasn't in the article you linked to.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:27 AM on January 23, 2011


Interestingly, the Chinese had a spy on the NASA shuttle program and his work convinced them a shuttle-style vehicle was horribly inefficient.

Could you clarify this statement, please? This information wasn't in the article you linked to.


The efficiency comment was from a seminar I attended recently put on by the FBI on industrial espionage. They would not provide the files for the presentations, unfortunately. Googling around leads me to believe the Chinese simply did not have enough free cash to fund a shuttle program and went with something cheaper. Given that they deny Greg Chung was spying for them in the first place, it's unlikely an official account of what was done with the information he provided is forthcoming.
posted by tommasz at 12:04 PM on January 23, 2011


NASA tried to figure out its own version of Energia a whole bunch of times. (Including a couple before Energia was around! So I guess they're not really NASA's version of Energia so much) Now there's another in the works, I guess, but we'll see what happens.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 12:08 PM on January 23, 2011


octothorpe writes "And how pathetic is it that after the shuttle retires, the only way to get Americans in space will be via the almost fifty year old Soyuz craft?"

If it ain't broke why fix it. A serious problem with space flight is amortizing capital production costs. Maintaining a single launch platform instead of two doing essentially the same thing is wasteful.

Cool Papa Bell writes "By flying the rocket up in an aircraft, you are adding enormously to the cost and the risk -- someone has to fly that aircraft, after all."

Well both the Buran and modern UAVs prove the latter isn't true. Especially for something like space flight where at present one can wait for ideal conditions for launch flights.
posted by Mitheral at 12:25 PM on January 23, 2011


jontyjago, this will be useful to you in the future.
posted by intermod at 12:39 PM on January 23, 2011


Speaking of jet/rocket hybrids, the US has done a ton of research since the '80s on things like the X-30 / NASP, scramjets, and the like. It's mostly not very promising for launching things to orbit, and only maybe promising for more terrestrial things like spyplanes, missiles, and passenger travel. The takeaway is that the advantage of not having to carry your own oxidizer is more than offset by having to push your craft through the air (air is pretty thick at Mach 27).
posted by hattifattener at 1:33 PM on January 23, 2011


Fucking air, AMIRITE?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:00 PM on January 23, 2011


That's extremely short sighted, as the manned space program has produced numerous benefits to society.

Let's make a giant domed city at the bottom of the sea. Or a truly self sustaining colony on Antarctica. Why the hell should we take up such endeavors? Because of all the cool and unforeseen gadgets that will be discovered as a result!

This is one of the funniest arguments in favor of manned space exploration. What it really is amounts to an argument for is massive public spending on research. Of almost any kind. And call it a success when we get Food Sticks and WD-40 on the store shelves.

Rational Americans are desperately trying to extract the country from the military industrial complex, yet one reason it survives is because we can be bought off with the promise of gadgets that are essentially scraps off the government tit. And besides, the manned space program makes a nice fireworks display where everyone of all political stripes can wave a flag.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:54 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I had first heard of the Buran program in this 2007 article in Dark Roasted Blend (lots of photos, many the same as in this post).
posted by ovvl at 3:59 PM on January 23, 2011


Unrelated: one of my favourite bits of Russian Space trivia: Spy Satellite Spektr, which ran out of funding until NASA financed transforming it into part of the Mir Space Station. It later got crunched by another module in docking.
posted by ovvl at 4:08 PM on January 23, 2011


NASA tried to figure out its own version of Energia a whole bunch of times.

Building a heavy lift craft like this -- in the Saturn V/Energia M/Shuttle/Atlas V class -- is not that hard. It takes technical detail to do so, but it's just not hard.

The reason they're not being built is that they're basically useless. The only one that flew for any length of time was STS, and the only reason it was a heavy lifter is that the Shuttle is freaking heavy -- 86 tons dry weight with SSMEs installed.

If you want to land men on the moon and bring them back, you need 120+ tons to orbit. You don't need it to build a space station -- the ISS was built with Proton-K and STS flights -- all in the 25 ton-to-LEO range, not 120+.

Russia and the US will build heavy lifters again if, and only if, we can come up with a reasonable reason to do so. Right now, we've got nothing.
posted by eriko at 6:53 PM on January 23, 2011


The shuttle makes Whitey On The Moon seem downright useful. Like everything involved in the Military-Industrial Complex, it's been defined in terms to make opposition politically impossible. The jobs in the various contractors are carefully spread through all the most important congressional districts, and since Space=Patriotism, you'd have to be some kind of terrorist to be against it.

Soyuz is a great little capsule, but what is that damn ISS doing up there anyway? Trading off funds with our failing weather satellite system, Hubble's replacement, and a bunch of interplanetary probes that have actual value. And guess what? The ISS will eventually get written off, and we can look forward to a couple of years of "where the hell will it land?" games. Ten years, twenty, tops. And it still won't have 1/10th the science of Chandra, or SOHO, or Kepler. What a disaster.
posted by norm at 9:21 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm as big a critic of Gregg Easterbrook's skull-clutchingly annoying sports columns as the next guy, but he sure pegged the shuttle's failure a full year before the damn thing first flew.

...and I'm now having flashbacks to this same discussion here years ago, and as I recall I reminisced then how I knew as a five year old that the shuttle sucked; our ship was an ugly space plane for low earth orbit and ten years earlier people were walking on the goddamn moon. Ugh.
posted by norm at 9:29 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I say we pull as many Apollo engineers as we can find out of mothballs and nursing homes, Space Cowboys-style and resurrect our most successful manned space platform ever.

That isn't really possible. Remember the story last year about Fogbank, the thermonuclear bomb component which they forgot how to make? All large engineering programs are like that, once they're shut down, they die. You can't document the institutional knowledge and expertise that comes with running a space system for 40 years continuously. I bet that virtually every part of Soyuz has been modified and tinkered with slightly over the years. Modern Soyuz capsules use better materials and more sophisticated computers than the originals at the very least.
posted by atrazine at 11:38 PM on January 23, 2011


Whitey On The Moon

Your argument is not enhanced by racist framing.
posted by rodgerd at 2:01 AM on January 24, 2011


[Thursday's] Delta IV-Heavy rocket launch: a personal impression
posted by kliuless at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2011


Sorry, I thought everyone would recognize a Gil Scott-Heron reference.
posted by norm at 8:48 AM on January 24, 2011


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