Did you know the Soviet Union had its own Space Shuttle program in the 1980's and early 90's? The Buran-Energia was the Soviet response to the America Space Shuttle program which they viewed as a major strategic threat. The term Buran (meaning "snowstorm" or "blizzard") refers to the orbiter itself, and Energia (meaning "energy") refers to the rocket system used to launch it into orbit.
Visually, the Buran was almost identical to the American shuttles, but there were several key differences:
- The Buran could carry larger payloads (30 metric tons as opposed to the Space Shuttle's 25). Since the Buran had no main rockets (all the propulsion was provided by the Energia), it could carry more cargo. Additionally, it could return to Earth with a payload of up to 20 metric tons as opposed to the Space Shuttle's 15.
- The Buran had jet engines which could provide thrust on reentry meaning it could actually fly (as opposed to the Shuttle which only glides).
- The Energia system could deliver payloads to the moon. The Shuttle is confined to low-Earth orbit.
- The heat shield on the Buran was more robust.
- The Buran could operate entirely autonomously requiring no astronauts or pilots. In fact, the manual system was never installed.
The Buran's only launch occurred in November of 1988 (ironically, during a snowstorm). It completed two full orbits, and landed automatically only a few meters off its intended target. It was transported on the back of an Antonov An-225 airplane which was designed specially for this purpose, and is still the largest aircraft in the world.
The program was canceled in the early 90's due to lack of budget, and tragically, the Buran was destroyed in 2002 when the hanger it was stored in collapsed due to lack of maintenance.
The video below shows the evolution of the Buran project. Especially interesting is the animation showing it launching several nuclear warheads from space and destroying most of the United States.
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