Buran

by Berck

I’ve always been perplexed that the Soviets bothered to copy our Space Shuttle. The shuttle was a terrible design, it made no economic sense, it was unsafe, unreliable, and a great example of design by committee and execution by democracy.

The Soviets’ version, Buran, was way better than ours. It could fly unmanned and even land itself, something it did on its only flight. Ours theoretically had an autoland system, but the one time it was tried, it was clear early on that it was going to botch the landing, so the commander took over. Buran, although it only ever flew unmanned, had an escape system that could be used at all phases of flight that likely would have saved the crews of both of our shuttle disasters. Not to mention that the Columbia disaster couldn’t have happened to Buran because it didn’t have external foam.

So why did the Soviets bother to build it, and if it was so good, why did it only fly once?

They didn’t believe NASA’s absurd cost predictions (which were obviously false), so they assumed that it was a poor disguise for a military vehicle. Possibilities the USSR considered:
(1) The obvious advantage of the space shuttle was that it could bring things *back* from space. So, maybe the USA was developing a space-based laser missile-defense system that could only be developed and calibrated in outer space. The space shuttle would allow the USA to deploy, test, then recapture these laser satellites.
(2) The shuttle was a first-strike nuclear bomber in disguise. We had a plan to be able to launch the shuttle from Vanderburg and have it land after a single orbit. Our claim is apparently that we wanted to be able to service spy satellites on such a single-orbit mission, but it theoretically had the capability to drop a nuclear bomb on the USSR during that orbit. That would make it the fastest nuclear strike option available to us. It’s also possible that the space shuttle could while in a stable orbit, at the last minute, adjust its orbit, pop into the atmosphere, drop a bomb, and make it home with no warning.

Even more concerning to the Soviets was the possibilities they hadn’t yet considered. They were so worried about this, they decided that they needed to have one just because we had one. When the military advantage we were hoping for became obvious, they’d have their platform all ready. So, they flew it once, proved it worked, and waited to see what to do with it.

It turns out, we did service Hubble with it, which is probably the only thing it did that we couldn’t have just as easily done with a cheaper expendable system. Also, reusability fit in well with the newly-formed religious fervour surrounding environmentalism.

I’m curious to find out if one day we’ll get some declassified documents that show we did, in fact, have some of the very sorts of ideas the Soviets were worried about. It’s not paranoia if they’re out to get you.

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