Why Did the Soviets 'Copy' the Space Shuttle?

by FliteTest | February 20, 2019 | (3) Posted in Just Fun

Ever heard of the Buran? Here's why it existed. 

The Space Shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft. It promised to make space travel routine, affordable and to put hundreds of tons of material into orbit every year. By the 1980s, the Shuttle program was at full steam. Then, quite suddenly, another shuttle appeared and its name was the Buran. However, it definitely wasn't built by NASA. 

The Buran lands for the first and last time. 


In 1988, it was revealed that the Soviet Union also had a Space Shuttle that they had been building for several years. Not many people have heard about it, probably because it only launched just the once. So, the question is, why did the Soviet's decide to copy the Space Shuttle?

The US Space Shuttle and Buran Space Shuttle compared.

Watch The Buran Fly

Footage of the Buran launching and landing. 

Concern at the Kremlin

It's 1975 - the Soviets are becoming increasingly concerned that the new American Space Shuttle will be used as a space weapon. The massive 30-ton payload-to-orbit capacity of the craft and a 15-ton payload return capacity was an indication that the US would test and place laser weapons into orbit that could destroy enemy missiles. Conjecture? Maybe, but the Soviet leadership had reason to be concerned. 

To the Soviets, the publicly stated goals of the NASA program just didn’t seem to make sense. Firstly, the Shuttle was supposed to be more affordable than the conventional rockets it would replace - but the information that the Soviets obtained clearly showed that the program would be far more expensive per launch. Secondly, the vast number of launches the shuttle was aiming to provide didn’t appear to have a stated purpose; why did the US need the capability of the shuttle? The USSR watched with concern. 

The mood had changed. The Soviets now had a motive to build a shuttle of their own. In theory, a shuttle type spacecraft could be used for highly versatile military operations, such as capturing enemy satellites and even delivering a nuclear strike faster than a conventional missile. The Kremlin agreed to develop a shuttle of their own, just to be on the safe side. 

A Buran Space Shuttle sits on the launch pad. 

As a lot of information about the NASA Space Shuttle was available and unclassified, there is a blatant reason why the USSR Shuttle looks a lot like the US version. It was fairly faithfully reproduced with Soviet tech as wind tunnels showed its shape was ideal - NASA had done the work. However, it wasn’t an exact copy, the Buran was actually better in some respects. 

A Buran atop the Antonov An-225 at the Le Bourget 1989 Air Show.

Defining the Differences

The Soviet Shuttle worked differently to the US Shuttle. Whereas the US Shuttle used two solid boosters to assist the main engines of the shuttle which were fuelled by an external fuel tank, the Buran itself didn’t really use its own engines to get into Space. Instead, it was strapped to a heavy lifting rocket that itself used four extra external liquid-fueled boosters. This was known as the Energia rocket. It could also be used launch other payloads into orbit by replacing the shuttle with a satalite pod. In effect, this meant that the Buran itself was not subjected to the same rigorous checks between flight; it was near enough a glider which didn't need the same in-depth checks on big orbital rocket engines. 

Illustration of an Energia Rocket Booster Stack.

Another benefit of the Buran was that it was, theoretically, safer than the US shuttle. Its liquid-fuelled boosters could be throttled up, down or turned off, unlike solid boosters. The Buran also had ejector seats for the entire crew. The US Space Shuttle, in comparison, had no ejection seats after the two it originally had for just two of the seven crew were removed shortly after its introduction. 

The Shuttle's main engines throttled up on the launchpad.  

Flight Into the Black

On November 15th, 1988, the Buran took flight for the first time. It flew autonomously and showed great promise. However, this was near the end of the Soviet Union which spelled the end for the Soviet Shuttle program. It was the most expensive program in the history of Soviet space exploration. Subsequently, the Russian Space Agency focused on its highly successful and more affordable Soyuz program for manned flight. 

A comparison of the NASA Space Shuttle and the Soyuz spacecraft.

The Soviet Space Shuttle was made as a response to the American Space Shuttle. It was a response to a cold war threat and a perceived hazard that resulted in this strange case study - a reusable space plane that flew just once, carried no one and performed flawlessly - it's certainly and interesting oddity. 

 Other Historical Aviation Topics

How the Bouncing Bomb was Made

What are Tip Jet Helicopters?

Mosquito: Did It Have the Biggest Impact on WW2?

Article written by James Whomsley

Editor of FliteTest.com

Contact: james@flitetest.com

YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/projectairaviation 


Shrike on March 14, 2019
Thank you for the nice article.
There is also a very detailed documentary (not sure if it is available in English), where it turned out that chief designer of Buran - Lozino-Lozinskiy was the one who hated it the most.
Lozino-Lozinskiy wanted Buran to crash on the first flight (although the damn thing figured out the strong wind go-around automatically) , so he can focus on his "Spiral" space plane, he considered to be the future of the space travel. It was what NASA now calls reusable space plane "Dream Chaser". I believe NASA even commented on how they figured out the CG from Soviet era photos of the "Spiral" for their own space plane.
Anyway, it is very encouraging to see that the concept is still in development and was not abandoned.

Some links for anyone interested:

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Razor7177 on February 21, 2019
There was a documentry on the Buran. At one point they(Soviets) were looking for ideas regarding the design and construction of Buran, the plans for the NASA space shuttle was available for public I think. So the ruskies borrowed the designs and plans ( not before the CIA altered it).
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MikelGerbs on November 21, 2019
It's a slight bit ironic that the (American) shuttle was such an unnecessary vehicle that the Soviets thought it must have had some secret military application to justify it, so they built there own, but in reality they had just copied a vehicle that had no hidden military intent, it was just a costly system with no justification, and now they had one too!
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Why Did the Soviets 'Copy' the Space Shuttle?