Did Russia Steal The NASA Space Shuttle? The Ghosts of Buran

So, the Russians bashed out a space shuttle back in the 1970s, called Buran, kicking off the most expensive project in the history of Soviet space exploration.

And it was a bit like stealing a go kart.


When I was a nipper, I had this great idea to make myself a go kart. I must have been about 8 years old. I managed to build the frame for it and something to sit on, but I had no idea how to put the wheels on or how to make the steering. It was basically a sled.

Luckily there was an older kid, with more money, who lived in the same street and had a shop-bought go kart. I went over and took a look at his, stole all the ideas and headed back to put all those features into my own home-built downhill racer.


source: Playstation Speed Freaks

That’s kinda what the Russians did in 1974, quietly building their Buran space shuttles from plans that the Soviet secret police stole from NASA.

And now all that remains of the whole Soviet space shuttle programme is a rotting reminder in a spaceship graveyard somewhere in Kazakhstan.


But did they build a far better space plane than NASA ever could?

Let the movie begin.

On 15 November 1988, the space shuttle suddenly got itself a little brother. The Buran reusable orbiter stepped from the shadows and made its public debut as it soared into space after more than 10 years of secrecy. To many, the shining jewel of the Soviet space programme looked like a complete replica of NASA’s space shuttle, but was it?

Buran launch - 15 Nov 1988

OK, the Soviet secret police definitely nicked the plans, but when they got them back to Russia they decided they could do a better job than the Yanks.

The Russian scientists were on it like a car bonnet and completely took apart NASA’s plans.

They were not happy when it came to designing a kickass cosmonaut space racer that looked so much like NASA’s space shuttle. However, when they ran wind tunnel testing, it became clear that the NASA design was cock-on for space travel, atmosphere exit and orbital re-entry, so our Russian brothers were kinda stuck with that iconic shape.

However, they sneered at NASA’s economic philosophy behind the shuttle: cheap access to space with low-cost reusable parts. Shunning the “build once, use often” adage, the Russians maybe just went and created the most advanced and versatile space launch vehicle known to humanity. Ever.

The politicians let the engineers get on with choosing the exact path to a supreme space vehicle. The process was long and painful, but just look at what they achieved.


Now, the Soviet space strategists were a warmongering lot and figured that NASA were building some kind of kickass world-orbiting space vehicle for military purposes.

They needed to respond.

The Kremlin leadership saw the Buran primarily as a carrier of space weapons, for the assembly of large space stations and the deployment of spy satellites and anti-missile platforms.

The first and only flight was unmanned. As I mentioned earlier, it took place in November 1988. It lasted a total of 206 minutes, during which time the spacecraft successfully launched into space on a rocket and was placed in a temporary orbit where the Buran orbiter separated right on cue. It then successfully boosted itself to a higher orbit and completed two revolutions of the Earth before the rockets were fired to begin the descent into the atmosphere.

It was the first space shuttle to perform an unmanned flight, including landing in fully automatic mode. Dang!

It’s hard to pin a number on just how much cash the Soviets threw at Buran, but reports estimate that it could have been billions. And that was back when a billion was quite a bit of dosh.

OK, now we’re pushing the nerd factor even further, but hang with us anyway. “Buran” is the Russian word for “snowstorm” or “blizzard”. Yeah, and back in 2002 one of the hangars was mashed to pieces by a massive storm as a result of poor maintenance. Not only did the Soviets nick the NASA space shuttle plans, they also nicked the most ironic ending to any 80s movie ever made. You can’t help but love those crazy cosmo boffin dudes. Massive comic respect.

Fast forward to now, and there are two Buran spacecraft left, neither of which twitched a wing in anger. They are abandoned in their hanger.

Some space eggheads say the USSR might just have built The Daddy, one that would have laid the groundwork for a new generation of proper kickass launch vehicles. Unfortunately for them, the economic storms of the 1990s and the breakup of the Soviet Union totally wiped out their star spangled dreams.

But that’s not the end of the story. Oh no. In the summer of 2015 our main man Ralph Mirebs found himself behind a lens at Baikonur Cosmodrone and shooting some damn fine pictures in the dust-ridden graveyards. All the photos here are his (except for the comparison infographic, which I spent ages on), so go over to Ralpie’s LiveJournal blog and check out more of his kickass camera clicking craftiness. Ralph, dude, you is hanging like a hurricane, my man.














So what’s your take on all of this? Did the Russians just thieve the USA’s space shuttle or did they make something super-special? You decide.


If things had been different, maybe, just maybe, Russia and the world space community would now have an advanced and powerful space monster capable of putting an international base on the moon and even sending humans to Mars. Instead, these days the space boffins are all scrabbling around to develop a new generation of launch vehicles that could never approach the capabilities of Buran’s badass-super-ultra-mega-kickass space launcher.

Now go tell it to your posse, yeah?

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