Monday, January 26, 2009

Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle

I recently completed reading the book “Energiya-Buran: The Story of the Soviet Space Shuttle”. First, my kudos to the authors Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis as well as Praxis for publishing a book with such a wealth of detail about a subject that only ten or so years ago would been another little known Soviet space project. This is no superficial review of Buran with a few glossy pictures and limited text, but rather this is a comprehensive review of Soviet winged space vehicles from their inception to the launch and eventual cancellation of the Soviet Shuttle program.

We often tend to think of the former Soviet Union and now current Russian Space Program as somewhat second class or backwards to the American efforts. This mindset applies not only to the Russian Space Program, but to their overall technology advancement as a society. In terms of unmanned space exploration there is no comparison – American efforts over the years with Hubble, SOHO, Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizon, Messenger, Spirit and Opportunity to name just a few are unequaled and have changed the world’s thinking on our solar system and our universe, but in manned spaceflight the Russians have proved steady and reliable, capable of larger things and like the America program always constrained by funding.

One of the most impressive angles to the Buran story is the methodical approach the Soviets used to develop the Shuttle. This wasn’t an outright “knockoff” of the American Shuttle although most agree it leaned heavily on the NASA concept, but a thoroughly tested design and approach to ensure the Soviets comfort in the vehicle’s capabilities. While likely equally as dangerous to operate as its American counterpart the Soviet Shuttle did not rely on solid rocket boosters or onboard Shuttle Main Engines which added to a reduction in overall accident risk.

In reading Energiya-Buran there are four core concepts that emerge about the Soviet/Russian space program and in particular the Soviet Shuttle Program 1) the Russians are technically competent, 2) they are innovative, but have a simple operating model, 3) they have a passive/aggressive thinking towards manned space exploration, and 4) they are calculated risk takers. Let’s examine each a little more closely.

  1. The Russians (Soviets) are technically competent - Let’s face it, the Russians pulled off some major firsts in space with the same jump start the American’s had after World War II and with less resources. They launched the first satellite, impacted the first man-made object on the Moon, first living creature in space, first man in space, first woman in space, first space station, and first automated docking of an unmanned craft to a manned craft as well as the first landing on Venus with the Venera spacecraft. Granted they’ve had more than their share of mishaps and tragedies and suffered ground and crew losses in their program, but nonetheless they have perfected low-earth orbit spaceflight and long duration spaceflight by staying true to a design that worked and by modifying that core design only incrementally over the years. They have perfected clustering and control of multiple engines and boosters on a single stack and even though the Soviet Shuttle Buran was a copy of the American shuttle externally and the Soviets at the time has access to a wealth of publicly available documentation on the American Shuttle it did have its own unique capabilities that included manned and unmanned operational capability and a heavier lift thanks to the Energiya configuration. That they could build the shuttle from scratch, fly it and recover it safely is an enormous technical feat given the complexity of the shuttle and what it has to do on each mission to have a safe flight.

  2. They are innovative - The Soviet space program has also been constrained by resources and funding since its inception. That lack of funding forced the program’s administrators to make tough calls on growing the program and led to a strategy where they had to be innovative to make up for fewer resources. They were also driven to accomplish major milestones in space. That they could sustain efforts like the Salyut and Mir space stations, develop a shuttle on a shoestring and over the course of nearly five decades have a continuous manned access to space is a remarkable achievement. It isn’t their design innovation that gets high marks for they have essentially been running the same configuration with minor improvements for decades. The high innovation comes from the thinking on how they used limited resources to accomplish a steady performance of manned space capabilities and firsts.

  3. They have a passive/aggressive thinking towards manned space exploration - Over the years while the American program has had peaks and valleys, triumphs and tragedies the Soviet/Russian program has been relatively steady. This is due largely to a conservative approach on sticking with their original rocket engine design and configuration and by not developing new launch platforms. What goes atop the platform may have been different, but the platform remained consistent. This steady approach allowed them to focus and become more aggressive on how to use the platform and that in turn led to their success. While the U.S. struggled in the immediate post-Apollo years the Soviets didn’t continue to reach for the moon, but quickly shifted strategies to orbiting space platforms and long duration flights. The American shuttle program was built largely on the need to launch satellites predominantly Defense Department satellites and that wasn’t a strategy to move American manned space efforts forward, but rather it was a strategy to build a highly capable multipurpose machine for missions that were best accomplished by other platforms. The vehicle may have been right, but the strategy for its use was wrong.

  4. They are calculated risk takers – The Russians have always stretched their capabilities. Some of their efforts were high risk. The R7 rocket that Yuri Gagarin flew only had a fifty percent success rate. The N1 that was to take two Soviet cosmonauts to the moon was as complex a clustered rocket as has ever been launched and it failed (unmanned test flight) due to a minor fault, but there have been other bold moves that did pan out and were major successes. The Salyut and Mir space stations were significant achievements that gave the Russians a lead in long endurance spaceflight. In Buran, the Soviets believed they could build a shuttle superior to the American version and give themselves a capability of building expanded space stations and enhanced operational capabilities in space including military uses. The Soviets thought they could leverage the knowledge and research that the United States had already done and build upon it to make a better vehicle. The end result was a “form follows function” vehicle with similar weaknesses to the American shuttle, but improvements also. Since the program was cancelled after only one flight and only one flight-ready Buran was built we’ll never know how well it would have operated over a long period of time.

Would the rate of failure mirror the American Shuttle? No one knows, but given that the Soviets were well versed in crew loss and their decision to fly the vehicle unmanned initially tends to lean towards a more conservative approach for testing before declaring the vehicle operational. Remember also that through this period they never abandoned their capsule based launch platform. They were willing to experiment with new ideas, but not at the risk of losing their existing capability.


There were some in the former Soviet space program hierarchy that didn’t believe in the need for a space shuttle to compete with the Americans. For the dissenters it wasn’t a case of the shuttle not becoming a key part of the overall Soviet, but rather that funding two programs would result in both elements suffering or that the untested shuttle program would take precedence and result in the loss of a proven space capability. The Soviet Shuttle program might have survived had it been further along when funding which was always extremely tight came at a richer premium under the Gorbachev years. The Soviet Space Shuttle program was eventually canceled in 1989 and the Buran Shuttle remained mothballed in a hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome until 2002 where it was destroyed in an industrial accident. During maintenance on the roof of the building that housed the vehicle it collapsed killing eight workers and raining debris down that inflicted fatal damage to the orbiter and the Energiya booster it was sitting atop.

The Soviets had planned a fleet of five orbiters. The first two including Buran were unmanned test articles that lacked a full crew life support capability, but could have been converted to manned flight later on. Two of the actual three manned Soviet shuttles were under early construction when the program was halted construction on the third was never started.
The lessons for the American program? Experimenting with advanced concepts is a good thing, but not at the expense of abandoning a core competency that you’ve developed and perfected over time. The American program was based on a “develop and discard” strategy, the Soviet/Russian program was based on a “repeat and refine” strategy. America was without a manned capability for years in the post-Apollo era and may be without one again in the post-Space Shuttle era – the Russians however have an unbroken manned space capability.

Necessity truly is the mother of invention - The Soviets due to a lack of proficiency in certain areas such at solid rocket motors had to improvise and in turn created perhaps a better model for launching a shuttle. By creating a heavy lift booster in Energiya they didn’t have to rely on incorporating main engines into the shuttle thereby reducing its weight and increasing its capacity to deliver and retrieve payloads.

If we were going to build a shuttle today it would be an interesting collaboration by American and Russian engineers to develop a medium lift unmanned shuttle replacement that could have the potential to deliver a vehicle that could transform how we use space and exceed the original concept that both nations envisioned for reusable, winged vehicle space flight. For more on this see my thoughts on “Creating a Sustainable Manned Space Capability”.


For space aficionados “Energiya-Buran” is a must read. It provides the reader with an opportunity to rethink our own space strategy and where the American space program needs to go based on the lessons of the past. It also is a stark reminder that the Russian space program is formidable and capable of great things at a time when our own space capability is waning and faces a period of uncertainty. The Russians are largely responsible for the rapid success of the Chinese space program. It was their technical expertise and support as well as their export of capsule technology that boosted China’s ability to achieve manned flight so quickly and they will continue to assist China’s efforts to reach the moon.

With existing technology both Russia and China are capable of a circumlunar flight similar to Apollo 8. However, neither has a capability to land yet. India is next on the list to show a strong desire to join the manned spaceflight club and will likely follow the same path China took in purchasing Russian space technology. ESA already has launched Russian rockets from their site in French Guyana and has explored developing its own manned spaceflight vehicle with the Russians based on the Clipper concept. Clipper was considered the next evolutionary stage in reusable winged space vehicle.

The Russian program while still cash strapped grows stronger as it develops new customers for its space technology and can continue to "repeat and refine" its capabilities and keep the production lines going.
Manned space programs are an enormous source of national pride and the list of countries that aspire to achieve manned space flight and that will achieve manned space flight is growing. It’s hard to imagine an American capsule atop a Russian or ESA rocket for our own national pride and prowess in space technology would be hard to share and hard to let go, but our own strategic missteps, our dire economic condition and waning political will have almost left us no alternative but to forge alliances and seek partnerships to jointly create something bigger and better. The lesson of Buran is that we can build upon each other’s knowledge and experience and move the dial and the human race forward in space. The joint work on the ISS has laid a good foundation, but perhaps now is the perfect time to combine efforts and look at a global space effort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes this book is really amazing. It has a lot of details.
I found this website about the Buran space shuttle.