On November 15, 1988, the Soviet Union's first reusable space shuttle, the Buran, launched in what is now present-day Kazakhstan. This little-known chapter in the Cold War space race saw the Soviets build their own version of NASA's Space Shuttle to challenge the USA for space supremacy. The Buran, Russian for "blizzard", was once the future of the Soviet space program. But, its first flight was also its last. A year after its launch, the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed. The space shuttle program was suspended. In 1993, it was canceled altogether.
The Blizzard is Born
As the Cold War thawed, the space race was still burning red hot. The Soviet Union announced the Buran program as a response to the American Space Shuttle program. The goal was to create a reusable spacecraft that could be launched into orbit like a rocket and then land on a runway like a plane. “Designers and managers believed that such a craft ultimately would provide more reliable and efficient access to space than single-use rockets.” The Buran prompted the United States to accelerate their own program, and invest more espionage and reconnaissance to gather information about their Soviet counterparts.
Like the Space Shuttle, the Buran had engines located at its back, and two wings for a controlled landing back on Earth. The similarity in appearance to NASA's Space Shuttles was not accidental. Some American scientists suggested espionage was at play. “Soviet space officials, acknowledging the similarities, contend that they are inevitable because both shuttles were designed to serve much the same function: ferrying people and cargo into low Earth orbit, then returning to a runway landing.”
To Infinity & Beyond
The Buran was extensively tested in Earth's atmosphere by test pilots, including German Titov, the second person to orbit the Earth. Titov left his career as a cosmonaut to become a test pilot for the program. The maiden, and only, orbital launch was made without a crew. The unmanned mission deployed and then retrieved a satellite and orbited the Earth twice before landing on a runway at Baikonur. The mission was considered a success.
The Buran program was one of the most expensive projects ever undertaken by the Soviet Union and was widely viewed as a waste of resources and a distraction from more important projects, such as the Mir space station and the Energia rocket.
The Buried Buran Remains
Today, just two Buran space shuttles survive. A full-scale test model is on display at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Museum. In 2002, the roof of the hangar housing another Buran shuttle collapsed after an earthquake, killing eight people and destroying the second space shuttle. The final shuttle is rotting away in an abandoned hangar in another part of Baikonur. It’s a rather unceremonious end for these abandoned icons of the Soviet space program. Now, they attract urban explorers who secretly hike 35 km through the desert to photograph yesterday's race to send humans to space.