The Soviet’s Failed Space Shuttle Program

March 17, 2017

Buran on An 225 Le Bourget 1989 cropped

In 1988, the Soviets launched a new type of spacecraft that had an almost identical appearance to the Space Shuttle belonging to the United States. The Soviets didn’t just copy the US shuttle because they felt it was a better way to get to space. They copied it mostly out of fear because of what they thought the Americans planned to do with it.

In 1972, President Nixon ushered in the Space Shuttle program for NASA. The space agency wanted a spacecraft that would make spaceflight a routine endeavor. They also wanted a spacecraft that could be reusable, thus lowering the cost. The Soviets, on the other hand, had their own unique spacecraft and saw no need to compete with the Americans when the shuttle program was announced.

But by the mid-70s, the Soviets were beginning to wonder what the Americans planned to do with the shuttle. They saw that the shuttle would have the capability to take a 30-ton payload into orbit and come back to earth with a 15-ton payload. It also had the capability to be launched multiple times. Russia’s suspicions rose when NASA, with the beginning of the shuttle program, began to share the cost of launching spacecraft with the Defense Department since they wanted to send military satellites into orbit. The Soviets became concerned that the U.S. had plans to use the shuttle militarily to construct a weapon or some type of military complex in space.

The Soviets didn’t have an answer to their new perceived threat and decided that the best course of action was to copy what the Americans were building. That way they could at least match the threat. They then began their own space shuttle program in 1976.

The Soviet program was called the Reusable Space System and was designed to have similar capabilities as the NASA Space Shuttles. One big difference between the two shuttle programs at the beginning, however, was that the Soviets would continue their other launch programs such as the Soyuz, Mir Space Station, and Salyut.

When NASA launched the first shuttle mission on April 12, 1981, the Soviets already had a design for a shuttle they had developed a year earlier. It matched the American spacecraft in almost every way, from the cargo bay to the size, and even the way it would be launched into orbit. During this entire time, no one knew the Soviets had planned or had been constructing their own shuttle. It wasn’t until 1987 that the Soviet Union announced they had in fact been building one.

832px Soyuz Space Shuttle Buran comparison.svg
A comparison of the Russian Soyuz (left), US Space Shuttle (middle), and Soviet Buran Shuttle (right)

The Soviet shuttle was called Buran which meant “snowstorm” or “blizzard”. On November 15, 1988, the Buran made its maiden flight. It was launched and orbited the earth two times without any crew before landing autonomously. That feat was one of the big differences between the U.S. shuttle and the Soviet shuttle, but there were other differences with the Soviet shuttle. It could return to earth with more payload than its U.S. counterpart, and it didn’t have a main rocket like the shuttle did. This allowed it to carry a higher payload into orbit.

Though the program was scheduled to run through 2000, it never made it. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it, the Soviet shuttle program. The Buran became the one and only shuttle flight for the Soviets. When the Russian Federal Space Agency was formed in 1992, the shuttle program was not included in the plans. Four other shuttles were under construction or had been completed at the time of the dissolution of the USSR. Further construction was halted, and they were abandoned. The Buran sat in a hangar until it too was gone when the hangar where it was housed collapsed in 2002. Today, one shuttle sits in Kazakhstan while another sits at an air base near Moscow. The remaining two are in museums in Germany and Moscow. These remnants are all that is left of the program.

Buran 2.01 Space Shuttle
One of the four remaining Buran shuttles

Sources: Daily Mail, Popular Science,, Molniya

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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  • Hilarious that the Soviet attempt to counter the US program most likely financially contributed to the Soviet Unions eventual downfall.

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