The Life and Death of Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle

The unfinished Buran, left, during pad tests, and the space shuttle Atlantis on the right. Credit: and NASA respectively.

The unfinished Buran, left, during pad tests, and the space shuttle Columbia on the right. Credit: and NASA respectively.

Looking at NASA’s space shuttle orbiter and the Soviet Buran orbiter side by side, it’s not hard to see the similarities. And the most common knee-jerk reaction, in light of the fact that NASA’s shuttle flew seven years before Buran, is that the Soviets copied the American design. There ‘s a fair bit of truth to this; the Soviets did borrow heavily from the American design. Suspecting that NASA’s shuttle was first and foremost a military vehicle – the agency announced that there would be a shuttle launch facility built at Vandenberg Air Force Base to facilitate Department of Defense launches and public documents said the orbiter would have a 1,242-mile cross-range landing capability – the Soviets decided that copying it to have the same capabilities as the Americans in space was the safest bet. The story of Buran is a fascinating one about how Cold War paranoia led the Soviet Union to abandon its own plans in space to match an unknown American threat, and it’s the subject of my latest feature article at Ars Technica.

For more on Buran, check out and Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis’ Energiya-Buran


  1. phuzz says

    I think the best analogy for explaining why the Soviet government wanted a shuttle-like craft was that they were worried about a ‘shuttle-gap’ in the same way that the American government was worried about a ‘missile-gap’ in the 1950′s.
    Uninformed paranoia was rife on both sides during the cold war.

    Really enjoying your articles at Ars Amy :)

  2. Salem Hanna says

    Buran was a distraction and a mistake, albeit a very impressive one, but they should at least have kept the Energia booster. How valuable would that have been when it came to building the ISS?

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