On 15 November 1988, the Soviet Union stunned western observers by launching Buran, its clone of the NASA space shuttle, into low Earth orbit. After circling the globe twice, the uncrewed spacecraft – its name means “blizzard” – flew to an impressive precision runway landing in Baikonur, Kazahkstan. Much was expected of the spacecraft but it never flew again. Despite pressure from the cosmonaut corps itself the craft was not developed into a human-carrying craft and was scrapped.
But what if it had not been? As the US shuttle faces its last mission, we asked veteran cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, who has spent 359 days on the International Space Station in two missions, what happened to Buran – and how it may have improved on the US design.
New Scientist: After the cold war, why didn’t Russia maintain its shuttle programme?
Oleg Kotov: We had no civilian tasks for Buran and the military ones were no longer needed. It was originally designed as a military system for weapon delivery, maybe even nuclear weapons. The American shuttle also has military uses.
The idea was to drop weapons from orbit?
Yes, absolutely. A shuttle is particularly useful for this because it can change its orbit and trajectory – so an attack from it is almost impossible to protect against. But the need for such military applications ended.