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.