Monday, December 09, 2013


NASA's space shuttle programme was started when the Cold War began to grow hot: the first flights took place in the era of Cruise missiles, Protect and Survive, the doctrine of a winnable nuclear war uncovered by Robert Sheer's With Enough Shovels, The Day After, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Two Tribes'. The Soviet authorities realised that the shuttle had serious military uses, and decided to start their own programme. The spacecraft in the image above, Buran, is the only Soviet shuttle to have reached orbit. Launched in November 1988, it was unmanned, completed two orbits of the Earth, and landed under automatic guidance. There's more information about it here and here.

Within a year, history had overtaken the Buran programme. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the authorities realised that their space shuttle was an expensive dead end which could no longer be justified, and shut it down (the USA took somewhat longer to come to the same conclusion). Four shuttles were under construction at the time. One, nicknamed Ptichka (Little Bird), is stored in the Baikonur Cosmodrome alongside a non-flying prototype; another, Baikal, is parked on an airfield; the other two have been partially or completely dismantled. Two  prototypes are on public display: one in Gorky Park, Moscow; the other in the Technik Museum Speyer, Germany.

As for Buran, the only Soviet shuttle to have orbited the Earth, it was destroyed when the roof of the hangar in which it is was being stored at Baikonur collapsed. An ignominious end to the avatar of an alternate history which might have intensified the cold war in low Earth orbit, or which might have seen two kinds of space shuttles servicing the International Space Station, but which otherwise, let's face it, probably wouldn't have been very different to our own history.


Blogger PeteY said...

Well, I'm not so sure it wouldn't make a difference, at least to spaceflight capability. If Buran was flying, the Russians would have an operational Energiya heavy-lift booster, bigger than anything available at the moment. As to whether they would be in a position to use it, eg to conduct manned lunar missions, is another question.

December 09, 2013 7:33 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Yes, Paul, it's quite a sad view of Buran in Gorky park - not only because of its condition but it looks like meeting of two different civiliztions - one had dreams of sapce and the could only consume and relax in the shadow of previous. Tryely as I understood from Russian sources shuttles could be useful in an open space - to carry cargoes and people from one station to time didn't come yet. As to standard flights from Earth - rockets are much more useful, cheap and much less risky.

December 10, 2013 3:21 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

P.S, Sorry for misprints. I meant that one civilization had dreams of space and the other civilization could only consume and relax in the shadow of previous...

December 10, 2013 3:23 pm  
Blogger Jonathan Laidlow said...

Some more links:

December 11, 2013 10:36 am  
Anonymous Peter Erwin said...

NASA's space shuttle programme was started when the Cold War began to grow hot:

Actually, the program started during the era of detente; the first test flight was in 1976.

December 18, 2013 5:16 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Thanks Peter - you're quite right that the programme started in the 1970s (as did the Buran programme, although construction didn't begin until 1980). I was thinking of proof-of-concept orbital flights, which of course started in 1981 for the US, but didn't make that clear.

December 20, 2013 5:13 pm  

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