In 1972 the United States and NASA officially began what would eventually be referred to as the Space Shuttle program. From its first mission in 1981 until its demise 134 missions later in 2011, this program was basically a high-tech orbital delivery service, including some classified military missions.
In the early planning days of the shuttle the Soviet Union saw it as something much more dangerous: a possible space-based weapon being constructed by a rival nation. It decided to launch its own version of the U.S. shuttle program to try and keep up.
The Soviet Union began its foray into the world of fixed-wing shuttle spacecraft in February of 1976 with their Energia-Buran Program (‘Energia’ referring to the rocket the shuttle-Buran-was piggybacking into orbit).
Whereas the American shuttle program was lead by NASA, the Soviets had no similar unified agency in place to spearhead their attempts.
Still, the effort put into the Buran Program by the Soviets was impressive: 86 government ministries and departments, 1286 private companies and an estimated one million people were involved in the Russian shuttle’s 18-year lifespan.
Arguments have been made that the Russian shuttle was superior to its American cousin in some ways, the most significant being that it could be flown remotely despite having room for a 6-man crew.
Only one of Russia’s shuttles ever made it to orbit and even then it was an unmanned voyage seven years after the Americans sent two astronauts into space aboard Columbia in 1981.
The Buran program was suspended in 1993 when funding finally ran out, resulting in the Baikonur Cosmodrome transforming from a beacon of hope for the future of Soviet space exploration into an abandoned, dusty and dangerous mausoleum.
- All images courtesy of the amazing Bob Thissen
- Buran Space Shuttle
- Buran reusable shuttle
- Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle
- These Are the Sad Remains of the Soviet Space Shuttle Program
- Why the Soviet space shuttle was left to rot
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