Today, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Horizon, and Boeing working tirelessly to find ways to reach the stars for less money, it’s become a commonly accepted truth that the space shuttle, while ambitious and an incredible feat of engineering, was never the economic answer to maintaining an orbital presence.

The shuttle program was an immense success in a number of ways. Aside from two tragic disasters, they successfully made trips to orbit so safe and mundane, the American public just about lost interest in what NASA was up to. The space shuttle ferried larger crews and payloads than ever before during the same years more and more Americans were tuning in to watch NASCAR in hopes of seeing an explosive crash. Like the astronauts in Apollo 13 learned prior to their mission going wrong, most people just aren’t that interested in watching a calm person talk about how smooth things are going.

But as the American people grew bored with hearing about successful shuttle missions, a very different crowd was watching on the other side of the planet, one that recognized the value in mundanity when it comes to the unforgiving vacuum of space: the Soviet Union.

In hindsight, it’s clear that orbital shuttle operations can be prohibitively expensive. Although NASA touted the cost of each launch as only a paltry $450 million (approximately five times as expensive as SpaceX’s most expensive launch options), estimates after the close of the program in 2010 placed the cost per launch at closer to $1.3 billion. The United States didn’t only have the best space program in the world during the shuttle’s years of use, it also had a strong economy capable of supporting such costs – something the Soviets were lacking.

STS-49 ENDEAVOUR LAUNCH. 5/7/92 Courtesy of NASA

Nonetheless, the Soviet Union moved forward with their own shuttle, called the Buran. The spacecraft bore a striking resemblance to America’s orbiter both in aesthetics and operation, launching with extra fuel and boosters connected to its belly and relying on an aerodynamic glide and traditional aircraft horizontal landing upon reentry.

“The Soviet speculation was that the shuttle would be used to capture or destroy satellites,” said Cathleen Lewis, curator of International Space Programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, who specializes in Soviet and Russian space programs.

“This was during the era when the Soviet Union was really going full force trying to keep up with U.S. military technology, so they wanted a shuttle for themselves and they built it as a competitor to the U.S. shuttle.”

Despite concerns about keeping pace with America’s shuttle, the Soviet Union was already in its twilight by the time the Buran program began to hit its stride. Soviet scientists, excited by their successes in sending a lander to the surface of Venus, wanted the dwindling space budget to focus on more successful endeavors, rather than keeping pace with the unverified American orbital threat – but the Soviet government was far more concerned with the U.S. than they were with science, and the Buran program continued to see funding right up until there simply wasn’t any money left in the Soviet government to disperse.

At its peak, the Buran program employed over 150,000 engineers, scientists, technicians and support staff – though many of them were never informed about what program they were actually working on. The Buran was considered a closely held state secret until Australian reconnaissance aircraft spotted one of the shuttles in 1982.

Visitors at the 38th Paris International Air and Space Shown at Le Bourget Airfield line up to tour a Soviet An-225 Mechta aircraft with the Space Shuttle Buran on its back. (Courtesy of the French Military)

Those pictures led to an investigation that revealed the Soviet Shuttle was actually based on American shuttle specs gained through espionage, though it wasn’t a carbon copy with slight alterations (as we’ve grown to expect from China) it was actually an improvement over our own shuttle in some regards.

In what would prove to be the way of the future, the Soviet shuttle was actually built to be able to conduct autonomous orbital missions as well as manned ones, even handling the legendary difficulty of gliding the unpowered shuttle back to earth upon its return. It also focused on a launch vehicle engine design, rather than building the high-efficiency engines housed on the American shuttle. Whether or not their design would prove more cost-effective, however, would never be truly fleshed out.

The Buran did make one successful trip to orbit on November 15, 1988, completing an uncrewed, 3 1/2-hour flight before autonomously gliding back to earth. It completed two full orbits in that short time, then landed at the Yubileyniy Airfield only about ten feet off from its target mark. Despite this success, it would be the only orbital flight of any Soviet shuttle, and the government that funded it would soon fall itself.

Russian Buran shuttle preparing for launch, 1988 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Buran that made that, often overlooked but nonetheless historic, flight in 1988 was destroyed when the hanger at Baikonur Cosmodrome it was housed in collapsed in an earthquake in 2002, taking eight people with it in the incident. Its two sister ships, used primarily for glide-test flights, were left to decay – one at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the other at the Zhukovsky Air Base near Moscow.

Two other test models have fared better over the years: one made an appearance in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and now resides in the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany. The other actually lived on as part of a restaurant in Moscow’s Gorky Park for a time, before moving on to a public display as part of Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy.

It stands to reason that, had the Soviet Union not fallen, the Russian shuttle may have lived a long and capable life in orbital operations above the earth’s surface. It’s even likely that today, Americans would be hitching a ride in it to the International Space Station, as Americans currently bum rides into orbit in a much older Soviet era craft, the Soyuz, which first saw use in 1967.

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Now, these four remaining test craft offer only a glimpse into an alternate future that could have been for the once-powerful Soviet state and serve as a significant reminder of the years our nations spent competing over orbital supremacy.


Feature image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons