White Elephant

How the Soviet Buran space shuttle helped the United States win the cold war.

A structural test article of the Soviet Buran space shuttle, on display in Moscow in 2017.

WHEN VICTOR ZABOLOTSKY, A TEST PILOT WHO ONCE TRAINED TO FLY the Soviet Buran space shuttle, thinks back on the project that dominated his working life for nearly a decade, he figures some good came of it despite Buran’s cancellation. “We lose three or four test pilots every year, so wasting all that time probably helped me survive that career,” Zabolotsky says wryly. Before and after his years training for the Buran, Zabolotsky flew more than 70 kinds of aircraft. “My daughter, Margarita, was recruited to be a cosmonaut,” he continues. “And after what she observed—my distrust of the bosses and the way they treated me—she declined to join the cosmonaut corps. So the Buran may have kept me alive, and it helped my daughter find a career with a future.”

Like most Russians who worked on the Buran, Zabolotsky is still indignant about the experience. Pilots, scientists, engineers, and the technicians who built the vehicle all speak candidly, if a little diffidently, about what they see as a sophisticated, spectacular failure. It became for them the perfect symbol of a space program that had lost so much confidence that, at the behest of the Soviet military, it copied a U.S. vehicle for no reason other than to keep up with the competition.

But seen another way, Buran was an impressive technical accomplishment. In fact, you could say the Soviet spaceplane, which reached Earth orbit just once in 1988 and never returned to space, succeeded beyond all expectations and failed dismally—both on the same day.

We are ascending in a dimly lit elevator inside the Moscow headquarters of the Molniya Research and Industrial Corporation, once the Buran’s ultra-secret design bureau. Someone whispers, “Amerikanski journalist, it feels weird having you here.” I look up at the red numbers flashing enigmatically above the door—3…8…8…9—then back to 3 as the door opens on the 5th floor. I wonder if the numbers mislead passengers for reasons of secrecy, or if this is just one more thing in Russia that doesn’t work.

Like NASA’s space shuttle, Buran had its predecessors. Soviet space engineers had played with designs for mini-shuttles as far back as the 1960s. But it wasn’t until the United States decided in 1972 to build a spaceplane that its cold war rival took serious interest. “With two countries pointing thousands of ballistic missiles at one another, every move made toward developing space technology was regarded by the other as having military meaning,” recalls Alexander Bashilov, a 52-year-old aerospace engineer who is today Molniya’s director general. “In the early ’70s, when the U.S. began developing the space shuttle, naturally we assumed it would be used to deliver nuclear weapons, or as a sort of space pirate ship for shooting or stealing Soviet satellites. We had no choice but to respond.” So Buran, which means “snowstorm,” was born.

In his 1997 biography of Soviet rocket pioneer Sergei Korolev, U.S. space historian James Harford writes: “The USSR’s conviction that NASA was cloaking military space ventures in civilian clothing led to a misguided copycatting of the U.S. space shuttle.” NASA had actually conceived its shuttle as a way to reduce the cost of launching both military and civilian payloads into space. But according to Efraim Akim, a veteran Soviet space mission designer interviewed by Harford, the Soviets saw right away, based on their own calculations, that NASA’s cost projections were wildly optimistic. So they figured there must be another motive. Soviet military planners noted with alarm that a shuttle taking off from a planned launch pad in California could reach orbit and deliver a first strike against Soviet missile silos within minutes. By the logic of the cold war, the Russians had to have a shuttle too. Thus began the most wasteful venture the Soviet space program ever attempted.

With the same intensity that characterized the rivalry between the two superpowers, ministries within the Soviet Union fought one another to get a piece of the project and shape its direction. At its zenith, the Buran program employed more than 150,000 workers at more than 50 factories.

Stepan Mikoyan, the 80-year-old nephew of famed MiG jet designer Artem Mikoyan and himself a World War II veteran, test pilot, and aircraft designer, witnessed the waste firsthand as Molniya’s flight test director for Buran. Even today, no one can say exactly how much the vehicle cost to develop, he says. “The Central Committee would decide to do something like the Buran and then just throw rubles at it until it was done,” Mikoyan ecalls.

Despite its resemblance to the U.S. shuttle, Mikoyan says Buran had one key difference that helped drive up its price tag—its ride into space was the massive Energia rocket. Capable of lifting more than 100 tons to a 110-mile circular orbit, the Energia was the brainchild of renowned rocket designer Valentin Glushko, general designer for the RSC Energia company. Twice awarded Hero of Socialist Labor medals, Glushko had been a major figure in Soviet rocketry since before World War II. Reportedly, his only real interest in Buran was that it was heavy enough to prove that Energia could lift more weight into space than any rocket yet developed. “The most important aspect of rocket design,” Glushko once bragged, “is the engine. A stick will fly into space with the right engine tied to it.”

Though Glushko considered Buran simply a dummy payload for a rocket that could someday be used for more glamorous expeditions, such as to the moon or Mars, the booster and the spaceplane wound up sharing the same fate. Just as Buran had no clear purpose other than to keep pace with the Americans, Energia had no job other than to lift the shuttle—or at least no job that a country going through a painful economic and political transition could afford. Says Mikoyan, “The chance of many such rockets appearing in Russia’s economic condition in the early 1990s was very small.” So Energia was launched only twice, and had no role after Buran’s debut in 1988.

Even before its lone spaceflight, there were plenty of signs that Buran had no future. “No other design agencies were developing satellites that could fit in the cargo bay,” says Igor Volk, the veteran cosmonaut who piloted Buran during its early atmospheric tests. “The main designers and builders couldn’t even decide whether to call it a spaceship or spaceplane. It was a perfect metaphor for the end of that period of stagnation.”

And yet, during the 1980s, the program continued at full throttle. A total of eight Buran “analog” vehicles were built at Molniya. Final assembly of these full-size models was undertaken a couple blocks away, at the Tushinskiy Mashinostroitelny factory. One analog, used for atmospheric and landing tests, was outfitted with turbojet engines that enabled it to take off from a runway. Two orbital models were loaded on barges and floated down the Moscow River to the Zhukovsky Aerodrome, where they were piggybacked onto a 3M-T cargo aircraft for transport to the Baikonur launch facility. The remaining analogs were used at Molniya for stress, vibration, and temperature tests.

Mikoyan, a compact, handsome man with a full head of wavy white hair, smiles and admits that the Soviet designers at Molniya learned everything they could about the U.S. shuttle as they developed their own version. Even though the recipe for ceramic tiles that protected parts of the vehicle from the heat of atmospheric reentry was “a problem that was solved slowly,” he says, the thermal protection system designed at Molniya was remarkably similar to NASA’s. “In other respects we studied and surpassed the shuttle design in such components as ejection seats for the flight crew,” Mikoyan says. These were designed to work for pressure-suited cosmonauts up to an altitude of about 30 miles.

That the shuttle and Buran look nearly identical proves only that any group of aeronautical engineers will arrive at similar designs for aircraft with similar purposes, say the Russian designers. “The Ilyushin and Boeing passenger jets look alike to the uncritical eye,” said Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, the former director of Molniya, who worked on Russian paceplane designs in the 1960s. “That doesn’t mean they were copies of each other.”

Lozinsky passed away last November at the age of 91, but when I met him in Moscow a few months earlier, he looked sword-thin and fit and was still walking 40 minutes to work every morning. He was spending his days designing yet another reusable spaceplane, this one to be launched from an “aerial cosmodrome”—an Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft.

On the wall behind Lozinsky’s desk hung tinted photographs of Vladimir Lenin and Anastas Mikoyan, Stepan Mikoyan’s father and a lifelong Communist party member and Politburo figure. “Those two men made a man out of me,” Lozinsky said. He survived the purges of Stalin and navigated the intricacies of Soviet cold war politics. “In the days of Korolev,” he said, his pallid face reddening, “we had one boss. Everyone took their orders from him, and programs progressed swiftly and logically. When we lost sight of efficiency, we lost our ability to justify this expense.” A strong personality, Lozinky was not shy about dispensing advice. “Americans have lost sight of efficiency,” he warned. “They should be looking at an aerial cosmodrome for less expensive launches.”

A gentle rain outside his open window began lashing down a bit harder. With the agility of a 40-year-old, he got up, crossed the room, passed his hand across the windowsill to feel for moisture, and decided to leave the window open. He looked up at the dingy Moscow sky and made a wish for the future. “Efficiency,” he said, “should be considered above all else as we develop more vehicles for space travel.”

Igor Volk holds the distinction of being the only Soviet to orbit Earth and not be rewarded with a car. His oftproffered opinions on the problems with the Soviet space program cost him the new black Volga four-door he would have received after the 1984 Soyuz T-12 flight. He was, however, named cosmonaut-in-charge of Buran flight testing. “Hypocrites and fools from a dozen ministries ran the Buran program,” Volk asserts. “It was an honor with very little real meaning attached to it.” Then he adds, as if trying to dismiss the memory: “I’ve flown many more interesting aircraft than the Buran.” Volk’s nickname is “Red Wolf.” A ruddy, affable, and articulate man, he is still ready and willing at age 65 to continue his career as a test pilot. But, he laments, “there are no new planes to test.”

During his career Volk performed hundreds of dead-stick landings in all kinds of weather and all kinds of aircraft, sometimes in direct defiance of his superior’s orders. He never ejected from or lost an airplane. His experience in flying more than 120 types of aircraft made him the leading candidate to test fly the Buran to evaluate how it glided, approached, flared, landed, and rolled out.

Volk knew before most people working on the program that it was doomed. He recalls a drunken boss exclaiming to him at a social gathering in 1988, “It would be great if we had an accident on the orbital flight. That would give us a good, plausible reason to cancel the program.” Volk says now that he never fully trusted the amalgam of components contributed by different ministries and organizations. He was only the 11th person to be awarded the Revoredo Trophy for outstanding contributions to aviation, and his vast experience with prototypes made him worry about the Buran’s cockpit. After one early test, he remembers, he couldn’t open the hatch and had to exit through the vehicle’s fuel tank. The technical problems would always be solved, but his uneasiness remained.

The ignominy of spending years wringing out a vehicle designed to eliminate human input still raises Volk’s ire. He flew the full-size atmospheric prototype, which was outfitted with four 18,000-pound-thrust Lyulka jet engines, on more than half of its 24 flights. The first landings were manual. Then, over successive flights, Volk gradually relinquished control to the auto-land software, until the last few landings were accomplished by computer alone. At that point, Volk says, his interest in the Buran project waned.

For the people who worked on it, this was another of the program’s bitter ironies. The first contingent of nine cosmonauts assigned to Buran in 1977, a year before NASA hired its first shuttle astronauts, included some of the most accomplished test pilots in the Soviet Union—and, in the case of Igor Volk, the world. But their job was to serve as understudies in a vehicle designed to require no human input.

Most of the first Buran cosmonauts were employees of the Gromov Institute, outside Moscow, Russia’s premier center for flight research, while others came from the Institute of Experimental Flight, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. Volk and Rimantas Stankiavicius, who also was picked in 1977, were the two main pilots for the series of atmospheric flights conducted between 1985 and 1988. Three teams of two pilots made 24 short-approachand-landing flights in a full-scale Buran prototype. But when the vehicle finally reached orbit strapped on the back of the giant Energia rocket, the pilots stayed home. And that may stand as Buran’s single unique accomplishment: It returned from its two orbits and landed like a conventional airplane, controlled entirely by computers. The Buran’s auto-land software, though kluged together, worked perfectly on its one and only space mission.

Sergei Krikalev became a cosmonaut in 1985 and has gone on to become perhaps the most experienced space traveler alive (see “The Captain, the Pro, and the Fighter Pilot,” Feb./Mar. 2000). He recalls watching the Buran’s flawless launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome. November 15, 1988, dawned with a storm front from the Aral Sea moving across southern Kazakhstan. Energia’s launch had been put off several times, and officials declared that this would be the day, despite the clouds, wind, and 40-degree-Fahrenheit temperature. Liftoff occurred at 6:00 a.m.

About three and a half hours later, the Buran landed on a specially built runway north of the launch pad. “As a pilot, I guess I was a little jealous when it emerged from beneath the cloud cover on its final approach,” Krikalev says, grinning. “I thought the computers would get it to, say, 4,000 meters and then it would drift away. It touched down within a meter and a half of the center stripe and stayed within a meter of the center of the runway until it stopped. It looked as though a good pilot was at the controls.” High praise from a cosmonaut who also happens to be a former world champion aerobatic glider pilot.

Krikalev had, like many of his colleagues working on Buran, worried about the accuracy of the first landing. The auto-land software had been developed at five independent organizations, each of which had written a program to command the Buran to (1) leave orbit, (2) descend to an altitude of 60 miles, (3) glide through the atmosphere at an altitude of 13 miles, (4) make its approach to a microwave- and telemetry-equipped airstrip at Baikonur, and (5) flare, get the landing gear down, and roll out. Given the potential for something to go wrong, “it was oddly satisfying to see it land as perfectly as it did,” Krikalev says.

But Victor Zabolotsky, who copiloted Buran on its last taxi test in 1989 and is now president of the Russian Federation of Amateur Aviators, disputes the common claim that the landing was successful, saying that the landing approach the computer chose at Baikonur was “stupid, with a high percentage of risk. Most amateur aviators would not have considered that approach.” An animated speaker with deep creases above his right eye and a scar over his left eye, Zabolotsky says that on a scale of one to 10, he would give the Buran landing a four. “There was a crosswind at about 30 degrees to the airstrip that had been blowing since the launch,” he recalls. “A normal pilot would have kept the crosswind on the right wing, then simply made a left turn across the wind and an approach and landing with the crosswind on the left wing. The Buran computer chose to make a left turn over the center of the runway, then a hard descending right turn into the crosswind for final approach and landing.

“When it emerged from the clouds, it had a close encounter with the MiG-25 escort flown by [test pilot] Magomet Tolboev, who had intercepted the Buran at 9,000 meters [29,000 feet] above the cloud layer. He lost it in the clouds, then had to take an evasive maneuver under the clouds when the unorthodox pattern the computer selected flew the plane into airspace where no human pilot would have anticipated encountering it.”

Zabolotsky nonetheless admits, grudgingly, that there was a logic in using the auto-land system. No Soviet space vehicle had ever been allowed to fly with people until it had conducted two successful orbital demonstration flights. The Buran program was simply complying with a rule going back to Korolev’s days. Faced with the same dilemma, NASA had waived its own safety rule, and on the first shuttle mission, John Young and Robert Crippen rode an untested rocket. To this day, they are the only astronauts to do that.

Zabolotsky doesn’t want to concede too much, however. “There was the capability [on Buran] to override the computers in an emergency,” he says. “I believe that option would have been exercised, often. I don’t believe a pilot like Igor Volk, who could dead-stick land every plane we ever made, was going to sit idlyas a computer aims his plane at a runway.”

When Russian president Boris Yeltsin quietly canceled the Buran in 1993, the move came as no surprise. Even people who devoted careers to the program say it was the right decision. Although a richer country might have found the Buran a versatile tool for military or civilian applications, by the late 1980s Russia could no longer afford cold war gamesmanship, having bankrupted itself trying to keep up with the U.S. arms program.

Like other relics of the Buran program, the runway that was built for the spaceplane ended up in a state of decay in the 1990s, although it has since been revived as a runway for commercial cargo flights in and out of Baikonur. In the 1980s, though, Buran’s landing strip was a technical marvel. Designed to minimize wear and tear on the vehicle, it used a high-grade reinforced concrete, which had to be polished to an unprecedented degree of smoothness—varying by no more than a tenth of an inch every 10 feet—by diamond polishing disks developed specially for the task.

The design and construction of the runway were military operations overseen by retired major Vitaly Zhilo, who remembers “working enthusiastically” for eight years on the Buran project. “There was a certain prestige for those who were working on the space race,” Zhilo recalls. “It is rewarding to know you are building something as unique as a 4.5-kilometer [2.8-mile] runway for your country’s spaceplane.”

A movie-star-handsome man at 58, Zhilo regrets that many thousands of people had no idea what they were building in the factories. And by the time they found out, the excitement was long gone. “After the first [Buran] flight, when the point was made that we could do it, we also knew that the money would dry up immediately. We knew that Progress rockets could deliver payloads to orbit for ten times less expense,” Zhilo says.

I ask Zhilo to join me for a visit to Gorky Park in Moscow, where one of the Buran vehicles is on permanent display, but he declines. “It’s too expensive. It’s too sad.” He pauses. “We were first with a dog in space, then a man, then a woman, then a spacewalk, then two vehicles docking together. All Soviet people were so proud of winning the space race. But by the time the Buran was ready to go, ordinary people had too many problems just trying to feed themselves. ”

Of all the Buran vehicles that were built, perhaps the most poignantly visible is this full-scale analog, used for stress and vibration testing in the early 1980s. It now resides with a group of carnival rides in a far corner of Gorky Park. The Buran is the least visited of the attractions, says Yuri Smirnov, the caretaker for the display. The spaceplane was brought to the park on a barge going down the Moscow River in 1995, then lifted and set in place by two huge cranes. A Coca-Cola machine and some plastic tables and chairs are arrayed under the starboard wing. For 60 rubles ($5.50) you can climb the stairs and sit in the cargo bay, which is fitted with seats that tilt downward when the half-hour program starts.

The show begins with 10 minutes of rocket engine noises thundering from large speakers that flank a six-footsquare screen; meanwhile, the projectionist waits for late ticket holders. When she finally rolls the film, we see the dawn launch at Baikonur. Then an interior shot of the cockpit shows two “pilots” flying the ship, even though Buran’s lone orbital spaceflight was unmanned. A voiceover interrupts to advise the audience that for the equivalent of about $10, they can have a star named after themselves or a loved one. Certificates are for sale at the kiosk under the wing after the show.

The rest of the movie is all science fiction. The Buran crew shoots down a meteor that will destroy Earth. A fictional docking with the Mir space station is depicted with a puffy-faced cosmonaut, Gennady Strekalov, waving amiably at the camera. Next we see a spacewalk to fix an aft thruster problem that could prevent the shuttle’s reentry. Then comes dated footage of Houston’s mission control; the guys at the console, their hair covering their ears, all flash thumbs up. The film reverts to actual footage of the Buran landing, and a woman’s voice again reminds the audience to buy a star from the girl at the bottom of the steps on our way out. As we head down the stairs, we can see a nearby pirate ship ride swinging 60 people slowly back and forth by the Moscow River.

“Ninety-five percent of the people who see that film treat it as history,” says Vladimir Mozgovoy. “Too bad, it’s mostly school groups who still visit the Buran, and they’re getting a totally false history. But I guess they’re seeing fragments of truth about the last statement of an empire.” Mozgovoy, a portly man wearing a Mafia wannabe’s black leather jacket on a hot afternoon, introduces himself as “technical director” of the attraction. “People who worked in the Buran program sometimes visit and they almost always leave with tears in their eyes,” Mozgovoy says. “I hate that. But fortunately, most of the people who worked on it are retired and can’t afford to come here.” He corrects himself: “Last year, Anatoly Artsebarsky, another of the cosmonauts who trained for the Buran, had sort of a party for his friends here. In the middle of the movie, [when Artsebarsky] appeared in his spacesuit, they had a few toasts.”

In addition to the Buran attraction at Gorky Park, two full-size Burans and three Energia rockets resided until very recently in enormous hangars at Baikonur. Last May the roof of one hangar collapsed, killing eight people and destroying the only Buran vehicle that had made it into space. A couple of years ago, the model that Igor Volk flew was put on a barge and shipped to Australia for the Olympic games. “We were told that the analog was rented to the Australians for the games,” Volk says. “In fact, someone sold it to the Australians and we’ll never see it back in Russia.” He laughs derisively when I ask who sold it. “The bosses who sold it don’t want us to know anything else about that project.” He shrugs, as if to say he isn’t much interested in finding out either. “It’s over.”

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