Buran reusable orbiter

During 1970s and 1980s, the USSR developed a winged spacecraft known as Buran (Snowstorm) designed to serve as a "parallel" response to the perceived military threat from the US Space Shuttle. The Buran development was conducted within the Reusable Space System program, or MKS, which included the winged orbiter itself and the Energia heavy-lift vehicle.


Pre-Buran developments

The idea of using winged vehicles for space flight has been in the minds of space enthusiasts since the dawn of the space era. In Russia, Tsiolkovsky and Tsander considered airplanes among other means of reaching outer space. Practical attempts to install rocket engine on winged vehicles were made in Germany and in the USSR in the 1930s. Sergei Korolev and his colleagues at the Reactive Research Institute, RNII, worked on the RP-318 rocket glider equipped with a rocket engine.

During World War II, in Germany, rocket pioneer Eugene Sanger and mathematician Irene Bredt, proposed a so-called "antipode bomber," which would be capable of attacking New York after a rocket-powered launch and a gliding reentry into the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the war, both the United States and the USSR obtained copies of the Sanger-Bredt report on the "antipode bomber," which became the basis for research in the field on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US, the Air Force launched the Dyna Soar project. It envisioned a manned glider launched into orbit on top of the Titan-3 rocket and landing on a runway like a glider.

In the USSR, Vladimir Chelomei, the head of the OKB-52 design bureau of the Ministry Aviation Industry, MAP, specialized in the development of the winged cruise missiles. He was one of the first in the country to push the idea of a manned winged orbiter.

Also, from the mid-1960s, the Mikoyan design bureau was developing a small reusable spacecraft called Spiral. This mini-shuttle would be launched on the back of a hypersonic aircraft , itself capable of reaching Mach 6 (or six times of the speed of sound). After separation from the carrier aircraft, the Spiral would be powered by an attached rocket stage.

Development of the Buran orbiter

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At the beginning of the 1970s, the US made the Space Shuttle a primary project of its manned space program. According to NASA predictions, the Space Shuttle would replace the entire fleet of existing rockets and lower the cost of launching satellites. However, in the USSR, the Space Shuttle was viewed first of all as a carrier of nuclear weapons.

In 1976, despite apparent skepticism in the space industry, the Soviet government decided to respond to the "Shuttle threat" with a similar spacecraft. (108) The February 17 decree mandated the development of the reusable space system, MKS, which was to include a booster, a space plane, an orbital space tug, ground control and maintenance infrastructure. The document required the space plane to be able to deliver up 30 tons and return up to 20 tons while reaching high-inclination orbits with an altitude of 200 kilometers.

NPO Energia in Kaliningrad, Moscow Region, subordinated to the Ministry of General Machine Building, MOM, took overall responsibility for the development of the system named Energia-Buran.

Unlike NASA, Valentin Glushko, the head of NPO Energia, proposed a configuration where a heavy-lift launcher could be used with or without a winged orbiter.

Also in 1976, the Ministry of Aviation Industry, MAP, transferred a group of veterans of the Spiral project from the Mikoyan design bureau and OKB Raduga into the newly formed NPO Molniya. The new organization also absorbed the KB Burevestnik and KB Molniya design bureaus, as well as the Myasishev Experimental Mashine Building Plant. NPO Molniya would be responsible for the development of the aerodynamic body of the orbiter. (106)

From the beginning, uncertainty surrounded the issue of possible roles for the Buran orbiter. Potential tasks concentrated around hypothetic military roles and support for the manned space station program. One goal was the delivery and assembly of the Mir-2 space station.


After a single flight in 1988, the program quickly ran out of funds, as the Soviet Ministry of Defense fully realized the lack of purpose for the system, compared to its tremendous cost. The cost of launching around 20 tons of payload on the Energia-Buran system was estimated at 270 million rubles, comparing to 5.5 million rubles to deliver a similar mass on the Proton rocket. (744) With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the program was essentially shut down and, in 1993, the head of NPO Energia, Yuri Semenov publicly admitted that the project was dead.

NPO Molniya, the developer of the Buran's body, tried to move forward with a small version of the reusable orbiter, launched by an Antonov-225 Mriya transport plane. However, the company has never found investors for the project.

LII to develop hypersonic vehicle

In 2001, at the MAKS air and space show in Moscow, the Flight Research Institute, LII, based in Zhukovsky, displayed a full-scale mockup of the winged HFL-VK experimental vehicle designed for test flights at hypersonic speeds. Launched by a Rockot booster, a scramjet-powered unmanned craft would reach a speed of 8-14 Mach (1 Mach is equal to the speed of sound) and fly at the an altitude of up to 100 kilometers -- faster and higher then most experimental vehicles in development around the world at the time. The HFL-VK is 8 meters long, has a wing span of 3.6 meters and a weight of 2,200 kilograms.

After launch from Plesetsk onboard the Rockot, the HFL-VK plane is expected to land with a parachute in the Russian Far East.

The program is partially financed by the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, Rosaviacosmos, however, according to LII representatives, the funds were insufficient for active development.

LII was developing the vehicle based on its experience with the BOR-type vehicles, which tested thermal-protection systems for the Buran program in the 1980s. LII was an active developer of the BOR program along with NPO Molniya, the prime-developer of the Buran's body.


Official technical specifications of the Buran orbiter: (107)

Maximum weight
105 tons
Payload weight 30 tons
Landing weight 82 - 87 tons
Returnable payload 15 - 20 tons
Crew 2 - 10 people
Flight duration 7 - 30 days
Orbit inclination range 50.7 - 110 degrees
Orbit altitude range 250 - 1,000 km
Orbital maneuvering system thrust (in vacuum) 8.8 tons
G-loads 3 - 1.6
Landing speed (with landing weight 82 tons) 312 - 360 km/hour
Maximum lateral maneuver during the reentry 1,700 km
Length 36.37 meters
Body length 30.85 meters
Body width 5.5 meters
Height 16.35 meters
Wing span 23.92 meters


Chronology of the Buran program:

1976 Feb. 17: The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR issued a combined decree (No. 132-51), officially launching the development of the Energia-Buran system. (52)

1976 May: Scientific and technical council of Space Systems Chief Directorate, GUKOS, reviews and approves the Buran reusable system project.

1976 June 11: The Council of Chief Designers with the participation of institutions from the Ministry of Aviation Industry (MAP) and the Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM) finalized the configuration of the Buran orbiter as a winged vehicle as opposed to an alternative "lifting body" scheme. (52)

1976 Nov. 8: Dmitry Ustinov approves technical requirements for the Buran reusable system.

1976 Dec. 12: The Chief Designer at NPO Energia approved the preliminary design concept of the Buran reusable system.

1976 Dec. 18: The Military Industrial Commission of the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR finalized the industrial team involved in Energia-Buran development.

1977 July: The Council of Chief Designers and the Scientific-Technical Council of the Ministry of the General Machine Building (NTS MOM) approved the addendum to the preliminary design of the Energia-Buran system.

1977 Oct. 27: A manned prototype of the Spiral space plane was dropped from a modified Typolev-95 strategic bomber for a free-flight test.

1977 Nov. 21: The Soviet government issued a decree detailing major stages and activities in the development of the Energia-Buran system.

1978 March: The Soviet rocket industry completed the technical specifications for the Energia-Buran development.

1980 Dec. 5: A model of Spiral space plane, designated Bor-4c, conducted its first suborbital flight in the direction of Lake Balkhash, on top of the K65M-RB5 (Kosmos-3) rocket to test a vehicle for future orbital missions.

1982 Jan. 6: The 3M-T Atlant transport aircraft conducts the first test flight carrying a hydrogen tank of the Energia rocket.

1982 January: The Minister of General Machine Building appointed B. I. Gubanov as a head of Energia-Buran development.

1982 June 4: Bor-4 No. 404, a model of the Spiral space plane, was launched into orbit and splashed down in the Indian Ocean. It was announced under name Kosmos-1374.

1983 March 1: The VM-T aircraft carried the Buran orbiter for the first time.

1983 March 16: Bor-4 No. 403, a model of the Spiral space plane was launched into orbit and splashed down in the Indian Ocean. It was announced under name Kosmos-1445. The recovery of the spacecraft by the Soviet Navy vessel was photographed from an Australian military plane. The pictures of the top-secret recovery operation were then published around the world.

1983 August: The body of the Buran orbiter was delivered to NPO Energia's Control and Test Station, KIS, where it would be used as a "Complex Stand" (KS-OK) for testing of the vehicle's systems.

1983 December: A full-scale mockup of the Buran orbiter, designated OK-ML-1, arrived to Baikonur. (52)

1983 Dec. 13: The Typolev-154 flying laboratory designed to test software and automated landing systems of the Buran orbiter conducted its first flight.

1983 Dec. 27: Bor-4 No. 405, a model of the Spiral space plane was launched into orbit and splashed down in the Black Sea instead of Indian Ocean to maintain secrecy around the project. It was announced under name Kosmos-1517.

1984 March: NPO Energia started electrical tests onboard the KS-OK test orbiter at the organizations test station, KIS. (52)

1984 June 4: A full-scale test stand of the Buran's flight control system, known as PRSO, was powered up for the first time.

1984 July 6: The first launch from Kapustin Yar on a suborbital flight in the direction of Lake Balkhash of the K65M-RB5 (Kosmos-3) launcher with Bor-5 No. 501, a 1 to 8 scale model of the Buran orbiter. Due to an electrical failure, the model did not separate from the launch vehicle.

1984 August: A full-scale mockup of the Buran orbiter, designated OK-MT, arrived to Baikonur. (52)

1984 Dec. 19: The last launch of the Bor-4 orbiter concluding a series of four test flights. It was announced as Kosmos-1614. The craft splashed down in the Black Sea.

1984 Dec. 29: The prototype of the Buran orbiter, designated 002-GLI, conducted the first taxi tests on a runway. (106)

1985 April 17: The second launch from Kapustin Yar on a suborbital flight in the direction of Lake Balkhash of the K65M-RB5 (Kosmos-3) launcher with Bor-5 No. 502, a 1 to 8 scale model of the Buran orbiter.

1985 Aug. 2: The Soviet government decrees to start flight testing of the Buran orbiter in the fourth quarter of 1986.

1985 Nov. 10: The 002-GLI prototype of Buran conducted the first atmospheric flight with Igor Volk and Rimantas Stankavichus onboard. (106)

1985 December: The body of the flight version of the Buran orbiter arrived at Baikonur on the back of its carrier aircraft.

1986 May: Processing personnel in Baikonur started electrical testing of the flight version of the Buran orbiter.

1986 Dec. 27: The third launch from Kapustin Yar on a suborbital flight in the direction of Lake Balkhash of the K65M-RB5 (Kosmos-3) launcher with Bor-5 No. 503, a 1 to 8 scale model of the Buran orbiter.

1987 Feb. 10: The 002-GLI prototype of Buran conducted the first automated approach and landing on a runway.

1987 Feb. 16: The 002-GLI prototype of Buran went through the entire landing process automatically during its 10th flight.

1987 May 15, 21:30 Moscow Time: The first Energia super-heavy booster (Number 6SL) was launched from Site 250 at Baikonur, carrying the Polyus experimental military payload. The rocket performed flawlessly, however, the Polyus orbital maneuvering system fired in the opposite direction due to a control system problem, causing the payload to fall in the ocean.

1987 Aug. 27: The fourth launch from Kapustin Yar on a suborbital flight in the direction of Lake Balkhash of the K65M-RB5 (Kosmos-3) launcher with Bor-5 No. 504, a 1 to 8 scale model of the Buran orbiter.

1987 Oct. 15: The processing personnel in Baikonur finished the assembly of the flight version of the Buran orbiter.

1988 Feb. 15 - April 25: Tests of Unified Propulsion System, ODU, and Auxiliary Power Unit, VSU, of the Buran orbiter were conducted at the Firing Control Test site (OKI) at Site 254 at Baikonur.

1988 April: Flight testing of the 002-GLI prototype is concluded after 24 flights.

1988 May 9: The integration of the Buran orbiter with the Energia launch vehicle started in preparation for the test rollout to the launch pad at Baikonur.

1988 May 19: Test rollout of the Energia-Buran system on the launch pad at Site 110 at Baikonur.

1988 June 19: The Energia-Buran returned from the launch pad.

1988 June 20 - Aug. 26: The Buran orbiter removed from the launch vehicle and returned to the processing area for upgrades.

1988 June 22: The fifth launch from Kapustin Yar on a suborbital flight in the direction of Lake Balkhash of the K65M-RB5 (Kosmos-3) launcher with Bor-5 No. 505, a 1 to 8 scale model of the Buran orbiter, concluding a series of five test flights.

1988 Aug. 29: The Buran orbiter was docked with the Energia vehicle in the processing building at Site 112 at Baikonur.

1988 Sept 13: The Energia-Buran system transported to the fueling station, MZK, for hazardous operations.

1988 Oct. 10: The Energia-Buran system was rolled out to the launch pad in preparation for the first test mission, scheduled for Oct. 29, 1988.

1988 Oct. 26: The State Commission gave a green light for launch, scheduled for Oct. 29, 06:23 Moscow Time.

1988 Oct. 29: At T-51 seconds before the scheduled liftoff, the automated processing system issued an emergency command after it has detected a problem in the launch sequence. The State Commission made the decision to postpone the launch until Nov. 15, 1988.

1988 Nov. 15: 06:00:02 Moscow Time: The Energia super-heavy booster carrying an unmanned Buran reusable shuttle lifts off from Baikonur. Two orbits or 206 minutes later, the Buran automatically landed at the Yubileiniy airfield at Site 251 in Baikonur.


1988 Dec. 21: The Antonov-225 Mriya super-heavy transport aircraft, designed to transport the Buran orbiter, conducted its first test flight.

1989 May 13: The Antonov-225 Mriya super-heavy transport aircraft conducted its first flight carrying the Buran orbiter.

1989 Dec. 28: The last practical work with the BTS-002 test vehicle is concluded in Zhukovsky.

1992: Funding for Energia-Buran program dries out.

2002 May 12: The flight version of the Buran orbiter is destroyed in the roof collapse at Site 112 in Baikonur.

2012 Oct. 15: A full-scale prototype of the Buran orbiter is removed from RKK Energia's Checkout and Test Building, KIS, to be installed at an outside display site.

2021: A Buran orbiter trapped inside the MZK building is defaced with graffiti. On May 26, after the photos of the vandalized Buran 1.02 vehicle had surfaced, Roskosmos promised to discuss the fate of the center's facilities at the next meeting of the Russo-Kazakh inter-government commission on Baikonur. The State Corporation also called for a quick decision on the transfer of unique artifacts to one of the space museums and said it was ready to discuss the conditions for such a decision.

Writing and photography: Anatoly Zak;

Last update: May 26, 2021

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Scale model of the space plane based on Tsiolkovsky's ideas. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Scaled model of the Buran orbiter used in wind tunnel testing at the TsAGI research institute in Zhukovskiy. Click to enlarge: 400 by 300 pixels / 24K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak

A 1-to-10 copy of the Energia-Buran system. Such models were equipped with solid rocket engines to imitate the acoustic loads during the launch. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


A scale model of the Buran orbiter(top), during testing at NIIKhIMMash facility in Zagorsk (Sergiev Posad) (below). Credit: NIIKhIMMash


A mid-section of the Buran orbiter, which was used for thermal testing at the NIIKhimmash test facility. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

One of six full-scale copies of the Buran, which were built for development and testing purposes, sits at Firing Tests Site, OKI, in Baikonur. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Four locomotives were used to rollout the Energia-Buran system to the launch pad. Along with the Transport and Erecting Device, TUA, the system's weight was around 3,500 tons at that point. Credit: RKK Energia

Energia-Buran just arrived at the "left" launch pad at Site 110. View from the north.


Energia-Buran is being installed on the launch pad.

Energia-Buran sits on the "left" launch pad at Site 110. View from the north. Credit: RKK Energia

Energia-Buran blasts off from Baikonur on November 15, 1988. Credit: RKK Energia

The Antonov-225/Mriya transport plane, carrying Buran orbiter, sits on the runway at Site 251 in Baikonur. Credit: RKK Energia

Buran trainer in Star City. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A fully-assembled Energia booster with the Buran reusable spacecraft sits mothballed in the assembly building at Site 112 in Baikonur. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Nose section of the Buran orbiter. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Tail section of the Buran orbiter. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The turbine-driven Auxiliary Power Unit, VSU, provides energy for the Buran's aerodynamic control surfaces. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Scale model of the Energia-Buran system with the core module of the Mir space station and the external airlock in the cargo bay of the orbiter. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Scale model of the small shuttle launched from Antonov-225 Mriya aircraft. NPO Molniya proposed the system as a "smaller, cheaper" alternative to Buran. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Full-scale mockup of the HFL-VK hypersonic research vehicle developed at LII research institute. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak