This Was Russia's Sad Attempt to Build a Space Shuttle

Kyle Mizokami

Key Point: The Buran program, which once involved the hard work of so many talented individuals and so much of the USSR’s treasure, is now a footnote in space history.

The intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union pushed the two countries to compete, not only on Earth but throughout the solar system. Good ideas, or perhaps more accurately good ideas at the time, were frequently imitated as long as they garnered prestige for Washington or Moscow. Of all the ideas that were copied during the Space Race, none were as curious—and blatant—as the Soviet Space Shuttle.

The American Space Shuttle program was designed to create a spacecraft that could act as an inexpensive, reusable connector between Earth and low Earth orbit. The shuttle was capable of carrying military and civilian payloads into space, acting as a laboratory for science experiments, and ferrying crews and visitors to orbiting space stations. The reusable nature of the shuttle program, which had named spaceships that carried out dozens of missions during their lifetimes, was a source of great pride for the United States and an example of American “soft” power.

The temptation for the Soviet Union to create a shuttle system of its own was too great, and work began in the mid 1970s, before the American spaceplane even flew. Moscow also had a practical, direct reason to build a reusable space plane: its Salyut series of space stations, and later the Mir space station, would benefit from having an inexpensive transport system capable of resupplying and even expanding the country’s semipermanent outposts in space.

Moscow had known for years that Washington had been tinkering with winged, reusable spacecraft. Designs such as the X-20 Dyna-Soar had tipped America’s hand. The Space Shuttle project was approved in 1969, boosted by NASA’s success with the Apollo moon landing. That the Soviet space program didn’t immediately embark on its own shuttle program is curious; it may have had reservations about the technical feasibility of a reusable space plane.

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