Category Energiya-Buran

The Space Shuttle’s military threat

By mid-1975 the reusable spacecraft had moved to the foreground as the next major step in the Soviet manned space program. Based on the evidence currently available, it would seem this decision was made mainly under pressure from the Soviet military community, which was becoming increasingly worried about the military potential of the US Space Shuttle. These concerns seem to have been triggered by several studies made at Soviet research institutes, including TsNIIMash. TsNIIMash specialists came to the conclusion that the Space Shuttle would never become economically viable if it was only used for the goals that NASA officially announced. As TsNIIMash director Yuriy Mozzhorin later said:

“[The Space Shuttle] was announced as a national program, aimed at 60 launches per year… All this was very unusual: the mass they had been putting into orbit with their expendable rockets hadn’t even reached 150 tons per year, and now they were planning to launch 1,770 tons per year. Nothing was being returned from space and now they were planning to bring down 820 tons per year. This was not simply a program to develop some space system… to lower transportation costs (they promised they would lower those costs tenfold, but the studies done at our institute showed that in actual fact there would be no cost savings at all). It clearly had a focused military goal.’’

In their opinion the Shuttle’s 30-ton payload-to-orbit capacity and, more signifi­cantly, its 15-ton payload return capacity, were a clear indication that one of its main objectives would be to place massive experimental laser weapons into orbit that could destroy enemy missiles from a distance of several thousands of kilometers. Their reasoning was that such weapons could only be effectively tested in actual space conditions and that in order to cut their development time and save costs it would be necessary to regularly bring them back to Earth for modifications and fine-tuning [13].

A study often cited with respect to the origins of the Soviet shuttle program was performed at the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Applied Mathematics (IPM). Headed since 1953 by Mstislav Keldysh (President of the Academy of Sciences from 1961 to 1975), this institute had been involved in mission modeling and ballistics computations since the early days of the space program. The IPM studies were conducted under the leadership of Yuriy Sikharulidze and Dmitriy Okhotsimskiy, two of its leading scientists.

The IPM studies focused on the Shuttle’s possible use as a bomber, more par­ticularly its capability to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States. Efraim Akin, one of the institute’s scientists, later recalled:


Space Shuttle Enterprise during pad tests at Vandenberg.

“When the US Shuttle was announced we started investigating the logic of that approach. Very early our calculations showed that the cost figures being used by NASA were unrealistic. It would be better to use a series of expendable launch vehicles. Then, when we learned of the decision to build a Shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg for military purposes, we noted that the trajectories from Vandenberg allowed an overflight of the main centers of the USSR on the first orbit. So our hypothesis was that the development of the Shuttle was mainly for military purposes. Because of our suspicion and distrust we decided to replicate the Shuttle without a full understanding of its mission.

When we analysed the trajectories from Vandenberg we saw that it was possible for any military payload to re-enter from orbit in three and a half minutes to the main centers of the USSR, a much shorter time than [a sub­marine-launched ballistic missile] could make possible (ten minutes from off the coast). You might feel that this is ridiculous but you must understand how our leadership, provided with that information, would react. Scientists have a dif­ferent psychology than the military. The military, very sensitive to the variety of possible means of delivering the first strike, suspecting that a first-strike cap­ability might be the Vandenberg Shuttle’s objective, and knowing that a first strike would be decisive in a war, responded predictably’’ [14].

The report produced by the IPM scientists has never been made public, leaving unanswered many questions about the technical details of such a mission. Appar­ently, the Russians believed the Shuttle could drop bombs on Soviet territory while re-entering from a single-orbit mission from Vandenberg or by briefly “diving’’ into the atmosphere and then returning to orbit. As Energiya-Buran chief designer Boris Gubanov writes in his memoirs:

“The studies… showed that the Space Shuttle could carry out a return man­euver from a half or single orbit…, approach Moscow and Leningrad from the south, and then, performing… a “dive”, drop in this region a nuclear charge, and in combination with other means paralyze the military command system of the Soviet Union.” [15]

What lent this scenario particular credibility from the Russians’ perspective was the Shuttle’s 2,000 km cross-range capability, demanded by the Air Force to enable the Shuttle to return to Vandenberg after a single orbit around the Earth. However, such single-orbit missions from Vandenberg were not considered for a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, but to quickly service polar-orbiting US spy satellites or even pluck enemy satellites from orbit, barely giving the Russians a chance to detect such operations with their space-tracking means [16]. Leaving aside the ques­tion whether such missions were feasible, the capability to return to Vandenberg after a single revolution was needed anyway to allow the Shuttle to perform a so-called “Abort Once Around’’ in case it ended up in an unacceptably low orbit after a main engine failure.

One can only guess what led the Russians to believe that the Shuttle had a nuclear first-strike capability. Possibly, they were “inspired” by their own plans for a so – called Fractional Orbit Bombardment System, an orbital nuclear weapons system designed to attack the US via the South Pole rather than passing through the net of radar systems at the northern approach corridor. The Soviet Union worked on three such systems in the 1960s, one of which (using Yangel’s R-36 missile) actually reached operational status by the end of the decade.

Even though it bordered on paranoia, IPM’s assessment of the Shuttle’s first-strike capability is said by many to have been a decisive factor in convincing the Soviet leadership of the need to build an equivalent system (although a more rational reaction would probably have been to upgrade anti-missile defense systems). Gubanov writes:

“On the basis of the results of the analysis, M. V. Keldysh sent a report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, as a result of which L. I. Brezhnev, actively supported by D. F. Ustinov, took the decision to work out a set of alternative measures to guarantee the safety of the country.’’ [17]

However, new evidence shows that Keldysh put his signature under the IPM report on 26 March 1976, which was more than a month after the official party and government decree that sanctioned the Soviet shuttle program [18]. Still, it cannot be ruled out that the studies began well before that time and that preliminary results did play some role in the Soviet decision to move forward with a Space Shuttle equivalent.


Mstislav Keldysh.

Keldysh, an influential figure in the Soviet space program until his death in 1978, seems to have been a major supporter of a Soviet shuttle system, which may seem surprising given his background as a scientist. However, rather than being a stereo­typical armchair scientist, Keldysh had always been keen on putting his mathematical talents to practical use, making major contributions to Soviet strategic programs in his capacity as head of NII-1 (1946-1955) and IPM (1953-1978). His appointment as President of the Academy of Sciences in 1961 was seen as symbolizing the marriage of the Academy as the headquarters of fundamental science to the military-industrial complex. One joke that reportedly circulated among scientists was that “instead of representing the Academy in the Central Committee, Keldysh represented the Central Committee in the Academy” [19]. Roald Sagdeyev, the former head of the Academy’s Institute of Space Sciences, recalls how Keldysh reacted when an Acad­emy workshop was asked to formulate an opinion on the need to develop a shuttle:

“Though we tried very hard, the workshop was unable to find even one single scenario in which the shuttle could provide a comparative advantage. Finally, I drafted a negative response to the government’s request for the Academy of Sciences’ opinion, in which I stated that the Academy did not see any sensible way to use this Russian version of the shuttle. Cautious Keldysh, however, did not want to get into conflict with the military, so he modified my wording, saying: ‘We do not see any sensible scenario that would support the shuttle for scientific uses [author’s stress]’.” [20]

Core stage: one or two sections?

On 30 July 1976 Dmitriy Ustinov officially appointed GUKOS as the military organization in charge of the program. Ustinov had been promoted to Minister of Defense in April 1976, but continued to serve as Central Committee Secretary for Defense Matters until October 1976, when he was replaced in that capacity by Yakov Ryabov. In co-operation with NPO Energiya, GUKOS worked out updated tech­nical requirements for the Soviet shuttle system throughout the year. These were approved by Ustinov himself on 8 November 1976, reportedly the first time this had been done at such a high level and again underscoring the military objectives of the Soviet shuttle program. Nothing changed to the basic requirement mentioned in the February 1976 decree, namely the capability to place 30-ton payloads into 200 km orbits inclined 51.6° to the equator and return 20-ton payloads back to Earth. Added to the requirements was a payload capacity of at least 16 tons for missions into 97° inclination orbits, roughly matching the payload capacity of the Space Shuttle from Vandenberg. The orbiter was supposed to be able to fly a total of 100 missions, another requirement identical to that for the US orbiter. The strap-on boosters were expected to fly at least ten times each, creating an inventory of boosters that would help the system achieve a wildly ambitious minimum turnaround time of 20 days [68].

On 12 December 1976 Glushko placed his signature under the “draft plan” for the Soviet shuttle system, but he did not have the final say. The draft plan was reviewed by an Interdepartmental Expert Commission chaired by TsNIIMash director Yuriy Mozzhorin. Even at that point, almost a year after the February 1976 decree, there was no consensus on the need to build a heavy-lift shuttle. Several members of the commission spoke out in favor of Chelomey’s 20-ton spaceplane, which could solve practical tasks like servicing space stations. Others called for the development of both a small and a large shuttle. In the end though, the commission’s recommendation was to press ahead with NPO Energiya’s big orbiter, mainly in order to have a deterrent to the US system in the long run [69].

The findings of Mozzhorin’s commission were discussed at a joint meeting of the Ministries of Defense, the Aviation Industry, and General Machine Building in March 1977, which recommended making some amendments to the draft plan. These were approved by the Council of Chief Designers in July 1977 and called for some significant changes to the core stage. In the original design the core stage was a single element with one LOX and one LH2 tank and a diameter of 8.2m (comparable with the Space Shuttle External Tank’s 8.4m diameter). Now its diameter was reduced to 7.7 m and it was lengthened by 7.9 m. More importantly, the core stage was now to consist of two separate sections, each having its own LOX and LH2 tanks (four tanks in all). This was mainly dictated by the fact that the carrier aircraft being studied at the time (a modified Myasishchev bomber) could not transport the stage in one piece. It was also supposed to improve the stability of the rocket by keeping its center of gravity as high up as possible. During the initial stages of ascent the engines would consume the propellants in the lower section and as the tanks emptied they would gradually be refilled with propellants from the upper section through a special cross­feed system. Once the upper section ran out of propellant, it would be jettisoned, as a result of which the rocket shed a significant amount of dead weight during the final phase of the launch [70].

The amendments formed the basis for a new government/party decree (nr. 1006­323) on 21 November 1977, which gave the go-ahead for the next step in the design phase, namely the completion of the so-called “technical plan” in the first quarter of 1978. This was to be followed by the release of “design documentation” for the rocket in 1978 and for the orbiter in 1980, usually the last step before the construction of actual flight hardware begins. The first flight remained optimistically targeted for 1983.

In 1978 it was decided to return the core stage to its original configuration, although it retained the 7.7 m diameter and was now even a bit shorter than the version originally proposed in 1976. Disadvantages of the dual-element design had been the need to develop a complex propellant cross-feed system and the requirement to find safe impact zones for the upper section, which imposed further restrictions on the rocket’s possible trajectories. However, the return to the single-element design did not really solve the transportation problem. The core stage still had to be flown to the cosmodrome in two sections, with the LH2 and LOX tanks being ferried separately before being joined together at the launch site. The later An-225 Mriya carrier aircraft was capable of carrying the core stage (and the strap-ons) in one piece, although it was never used in that capacity. The final amendments to the “technical plan’’ were completed in June 1979, which can be considered the date that the design of the Energiya-Buran system was frozen [71].


Buran’s crew module was 5.4 m long, more than 5 m wide, and 5.4 m high. Shaped like a truncated cone, the crew module’s outer shell (“Cabin Module’’ or MK) was made of an aluminum alloy called 1201-T1. The overall layout of Buran’s crew module was very similar to that of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, comprising a flight deck, a mid-deck, and a lower deck. The crew module was able to accommodate a maximum crew of ten, with four seated in the flight deck and up to six in the mid-deck during launch and landing. The Space Shuttle Orbiter has never flown more than eight astronauts (one single time on STS-61A in 1985), but could theoretically carry two more if the bunk sleep stations in the mid-deck are removed. The overall volume was 73m3.

Flight deck (“Command Compartment” or КО)

The flight deck provided seating for four crew members. The commander and co­pilot occupied the left and right front seats, respectively. Directly behind them would have been a so-called “specialist” (middle position) and a flight engineer (right position). This was a different seating arrangement than in the Space Shuttle Orbiter, where the mission specialist acting as flight engineer during launch and re-entry is seated in the middle behind the commander and co-pilot, looking over their shoulders to check vital instruments. On Buran the flight engineer would have had individual displays on the right-hand side of the cockpit.

There were six forward windows, two overhead windows, one aft window looking out into the payload bay (vs. two on the Shuttle), and a smaller aft-looking porthole permanently occupied by a crew visual navigation instrument. In front of the overhead windows were two jettisonable panels that would have allowed the commander and co-pilot to escape from the vehicle with ejection seats in case of an emergency during launch or landing.

The crew workstations were quite reminiscent of the Space Shuttle’s original Multifunction CRT Display System, using the traditional cathode ray tubes rather than the full-color liquid-crystal multifunction display units of the Shuttle’s “glass cockpit’’ introduced in the late 1990s.

The crew had six workstations (RM) at their disposal:

– RM-1 and RM-2 (front left and front right): the commander and co-pilot workstations, used during launch, re-entry, and also some orbital opera­tions. RM-2 duplicated many of RM-1’s systems. The instrument boards and control panels of RM-1 and RM-2 were known together as Vega-1 or 17M27. There were three CRTs, controlled by a display processor known as

Adonis. There was one keyboard for interaction with the vehicle’s on-board computers.

– RM-3 (middle right): the flight engineer’s workstation, used to control vital systems during launch, in orbit, and during re-entry. The console (Vega-2/ 17M28) featured two CRTs controlled by two US3-DISK display processors and a keypad for interaction with the on-board computer system. It was felt by some that the RM-3 unnecessarily duplicated the functions of other

Crew compartment: 1, flight deck; 2, RM-2 workstation; 3, instrument panel; 4, equipment; 5, RM-3 workstation; 6, co-pilot seat; 7, depressurization valve; 8, flight engineer seat; 9, overhead windows; 10, instrument panel; 11, instrument panel; 12, aft window; 13, passenger seat; 14, commander seat; 15, fire extinguisher; 16, RM-1 workstation; 17, feed-through plates; 18, interdeck opening; 19, mid-deck; 20, lockers; 21, instrument bay; 22, entry hatch; 23, toilet; 24, air duct; 25, cooling/drying device; 26, galley; 27, instrument bay; 28, access panel to lower deck (source: NPO Molniya/Moscow Aviation Institute).

workstations and that most or all of those functions could eventually be transferred to RM-1/2 and RM-4/5, thereby saving mass.

– RM-4 (aft middle, underneath the porthole with the navigational instru­ment): a workstation used for orbital operations such as rendezvous and docking, orbit corrections, and navigational measurements and corrections. The console (Vega-3 or 17M29) had two CRT displays linked to the Adonis and US3-DISK processors and a single keypad that interfaced with the ship’s computer complex.

– RM-5 (aft middle, underneath the aft-looking window): a console for operat­ing the payload bay doors, the remote manipulator arm, and several other systems. Known as Vega-4 or 17M210, the console had two CRT screens (interacting with Adonis and US3-DISK) and a single keyboard to enter commands into the on-board computers. RM-5 was more or less a mirror image of RM-4.

– RM-6 (middle left): a console for operating the payload in the cargo bay. The console (Vega-5/17M211) had two CRTs linked to the US3-DISK processors, one keyboard for interaction with the on-board computers and one for interaction with the payload computers.

Overall Buran had fewer control and display systems in the cockpit than the Space Shuttle Orbiter because of the vehicle’s higher degree of automation. A feature not seen on Buran was a heads-up display system projecting important landing informa­tion on a special see-through glass in front of the cockpit windows. NASA introduced such a system on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. What was tested in several simulated landings was a television system that displayed real-time images of the outside environment on a television screen via the Adonis system.

The organization in charge of designing the cockpit information display systems was the Specialized Experimental Design Bureau of Spacecraft Technology of the Scientific Research Institute of Aviation Equipment (SOKB KT NIIAO), based in Zhukovskiy. SOKB was originally part of the Flight Research Institute (LII), became an independent organization in 1971, and was absorbed by the newly founded NIIAO in 1983. The organization is also responsible for building most Soviet/Russian space simulators.

Radiotechnical Short-Range Navigation System (RSBN)

This provided azimuth and range data between altitudes of 40 km and 4 km and consisted of a 40 kg on-board set (17M902) and an E-329 beacon located mid-field off the east side of the runway. The RSBN ground station beacon continuously trans­mitted pulse pairs on its assigned frequency to Buran’s on-board RSBN receiving equipment. RSBN is the equivalent of the Space Shuttle’s Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) system, but unlike TACAN, which is the Shuttle’s primary navigation aid during most of the final descent, it only played a back-up role to the RDS. There was only one RSBN set aboard Buran, as compared with three TACAN sets on the Shuttle Orbiter. The RSBN was compatible both with Buran-specific ground station beacons and standard beacons used in aviation. This meant that RSBN was the prime navigation aid for emergency landings on runways not equipped with the RDS system.

Government level

The Soviet military industrial complex, consisting of nine ministries, was run by the Military Industrial Commission (VPK), a body residing under the Council of

Ministers. It made key decisions on the development and production of military and space technology, approved timelines, kept close track of R&D work conducted in its subordinate organizations, and ensured smooth cooperation between the various ministries. While the big policy and funding decisions were left to the Central Committee and Council of Ministers, the VPK was the workhorse that made sure those decisions were implemented.

The VPK was headed by the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. VPK chairmen during the Buran years were Leonid I. Smirnov (1963-1985), Yuriy D. Maslyukov (1985-1988), Igor S. Belousov (1988-1991), and again Maslyukov (1991).

The “missile and space ministry” was called the Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM) and was set up in 1965. Most of the leading design bureaus and associated manufacturing facilities involved in Energiya-Buran (including NPO Energiya, KBKhA, KB Yuzhnoye) were subordinate to this ministry. The ministry’s leading R&D institute was TsNIIMash (Central Scientific Research Institute of Machine Building) in Kaliningrad, which also ran the Mission Control Centre (TsUP) from where Buran was controlled.

The Ministers of General Machine Building were Sergey A. Afanasyev (1965­1983), Oleg D. Baklanov (1983-1988), Vitaliy K. Doguzhiyev (1988-1989), and Oleg N. Shishkin (1989-1991). Within MOM, prime responsibility for Energiya-Buran was initially concentrated under the 3rd Chief Directorate (“Rocket and Space Complexes’’), headed by Yuriy N. Koptev (the later head of the Russian Space Agency). In 1982 a Directorate of Experimental Work (UER) was set up under the 3rd Chief Directorate to concentrate specifically on Energiya-Buran. Headed by I. P. Rumyantsev, the UER had its offices at the premises of NPO Energiya and its workforce was actually on the NPO Energiya payroll.

In order to relieve the overloaded 3rd Chief Directorate, a new 11th Chief Directorate was eventually established under the leadership of P. N. Potekhin, with one of its departments (headed by M. V. Sinelshchikov) devoted specifically to Energiya-Buran. UER also became subordinate to this Directorate.

Minister Afanasyev also created a so-called Operational Control Group (GOR) to help NPO Energiya coordinate work on the Energiya-Buran program on a day-to-

У ^ ‘ч


Ministers of General Machine Building Sergey Afanasyev (left) and Oleg Baklanov.

day basis. This group was particularly active in the early years of the project in order to solidify the cooperation between the various organizations involved. In 1984 MOM set up a permanent representation at Baykonur to coordinate work there. Staffed by leading MOM officials, it had its offices in the Energiya assembly building.

Given the fact that Buran was a winged vehicle, another key ministry involved in the program was the Ministry of the Aviation Industry (MAP). The leading design bureau in charge of Buran under MAP was NPO Molniya. Major test and research facilities under MAP were the Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute (TsAGI) in Zhukovskiy for wind tunnel tests, and the Gromov Flight Research Institute (LII), also in Zhukovskiy, which was the home base of Buran’s cadre of civilian test pilots and provided facilities for simulating Buran landings on aircraft and the BTS-002 atmospheric test model.

MAP ministers in the course of the Energiya-Buran program were Pyotr V. Dementyev (1953-1977), Vasiliy A. Kazakov (1977-1981), Ivan S. Silayev (1981­1985), and Apollon S. Systsov (1985-1991). Prime responsibility for Buran was entrusted to the ministry’s 12th Chief Directorate, specifically founded for this purpose in 1977 under the leadership of R. S. Korol.

Dynamic Test Stand (SDI)

Operated and owned by NPO Energiya, the more than 100 m high Dynamic Test Stand (SDI or “Object 858-142D’’) was built to create and monitor vibrations and resonances similar to those that would be encountered by the Energiya-Buran stack during powered ascent. For this purpose a set of exciters and sensors was placed on the skin of the stacked elements. Data on the behavior of the vehicle was recorded in the facility’s computer room and then flown to Kaliningrad for full analysis. Vibration research in 300 channels could be carried out over the range of 0.1 to 20.000 Hz. The exciters could each exert forces from 200 to 5,000 newtons.

The tests performed in the SDI were similar to the “Mated Vertical Ground Vibration Tests’’ (MVGVT) conducted with the Shuttle Enterprise and a mock-up External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978. Whereas MSFC’s Dynamic Test Stand had originally been built for the Saturn V rocket, Baykonur’s SDI was constructed specifically for Energiya. There had been some discussion early on in the program to conduct the dynamic tests at the UKSS

Baykonur facilities 189

The Assembly and Fueling Facility (B. Vis).

Energiya test-firing stand on Site 250 rather than build a dedicated facility. However, the idea was rejected by the designers of the UKSS, who expected they would be too preoccupied with the test-firing program. The military, on the other hand, were against the construction of a facility that would only be used for test purposes.

In the end, NPO Energiya took charge of construction itself, but, since this ran into delays, initial dynamic tests were conducted at the UKSS using full-scale Energiya mock-ups known as 4M-D and 4MKS-D in 1983 and 1986 (see Chapter 6). Ultimately, the SDI was not finished until 1989, after the two flights of Energiya. The second Buran flight vehicle, attached to a mock-up Energiya, was tested here in June 1991. The SDI was designed to test Energiya in all possible configurations (not just with the orbiter) as well as for tests of Energiya-derived rockets such as Energiya-M and the massive Vulkan rocket. The now abandoned facility still houses a mock-up of Energiya-M built in the late 1980s [13].

The Soyuz mission of Igor Volk

As the leader of the LII “Wolf Pack”, Igor Volk was eyed from the start as the commander for the first manned Buran mission and was therefore the first candidate eligible for a Soyuz “warm-up mission”.

In September 1982 Volk was teamed up with cosmonauts Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Solovyov for a brief visiting mission to the Salyut-7 space station in late 1983. Their hosts were supposed to be Salyut-7’s third Main Expedition crew (EO-3) of Vladimir Lyakhov, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, and Aleksandr Serebrov, who were scheduled to fly a six-month mission from June until December 1983 after having replaced the EO-2 crew (Titov-Strekalov-Pronina) in orbit.

Crewing for the visiting flight looked as follows:

The 1983 flight schedule was thrown into disarray when the EO-2 crew (Pronina having been replaced by Serebrov) failed to dock their Soyuz T-8 spacecraft with Salyut-7 in April 1983. The new plan was for Lyakhov and Aleksandrov to fly to the station aboard Soyuz T-9 in June 1983 and be relieved by Titov and Strekalov in August for a 100-day mission to complete some of the original EO-2 mission objec­tives. Volk’s mission was scrapped for 1983 since no Soyuz vehicle would be available in time to fly a visiting mission to Salyut-7. The crews for the visiting flight were disbanded in May 1983 and Kizim and Solovyov moved to the training group for long-duration missions [50].

On 26 September 1983, their mission delayed several weeks, Titov and Strekalov were poised for launch again when a fire broke out at the base of their launch vehicle with less than a minute to go in the countdown. Only seconds before the launch vehicle exploded, the Soyuz was pulled away to safety by the emergency escape system. Rather than return to Earth, Lyakhov and Aleksandrov remained aboard the station until late November to complete some of the tasks originally planned for their replacements. Salyut was left behind unmanned, waiting for the next long-duration crew to arrive aboard Soyuz T-10 in February 1984.

Yolk, Kizim, and Solovyov relax after a training session in the Soyuz simulator. This is the only known photo of Yolk’s original crew (B. Yis files).

This time it was the turn of Yolk’s former crewmates Kizim and Solovyov, who were joined by doctor Oleg Atkov for a record 8-month mission. Two visiting missions were planned, one (Soyuz T-ll) carrying a Soviet-Indian crew and the second (Soyuz T-l2) with Yolk in the passenger seat.

Yolk was still without a crew, but all that changed on 17 November 1983, when NASA announced that Kathryn Sullivan would become the first woman to conduct a spacewalk late the following year on Space Shuttle mission STS-41G [51]. It was too tempting for the Soviets not to try and steal this space first, one of the last to be clinched. Under pressure from NPO Energiya chief Yalentin Glushko it was quickly decided to include a woman in the second visiting crew to conduct an EYA just weeks before Sullivan’s [52].

The crew of Soyuz T-12 (B. Vis files).

This decision may have been a blessing for the LII team, because there had been opposition to a dedicated visiting mission with an LII pilot, amongst others from Glushko himself. In contrast to LII, Glushko was apparently in favor of automatic Buran landings and was not keen on organizing a flight just for the LII pilots to gain flight experience [53].

Within a month of the NASA announcement, crews had been formed. Commander would be Vladimir Dzhanibekov, one of the most experienced active commanders around. His flight engineer would be Svetlana Savitskaya, who had already flown an 8-day mission in August 1982. That too was believed to have been a rush assignment for her, as she flew less than a year before Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space in June 1983. The third seat, which basically was up for grabs, was given to Volk, who had been in line to fly the mission anyway.

The crewing for Soyuz T-12 was:

Prime crew Back-up crew

Vladimir Dzhanibekov Vladimir Vasyutin

Svetlana Savitskaya Viktor Savinykh

Igor Volk Yekaterina Ivanova

Yolk, Dzhanibekov, and Savitskaya shortly after landing (B. Vis files).

Minutes after the traditional post-landing crew photo was taken, Yolk left to begin the most important part of his mission—flying aircraft along the flight path of a Buran shuttle returning from space—leaving Dzhanibekov and Savitskaya behind (B. Hendrickx files).

The back-up assignments raised some eyebrows when they finally became known to Western space analysts in 1988 [54]. No second back-up crew was named and that, together with the composition of the first back-up crew, was a clear indication that this was a “crew of opportunity” and not one that was part of the overall, long-term mission planning for Salyut-7 expeditions. Judging by the absence of an LII pilot in the back-up crew, it looked as if the importance of flying a woman cosmonaut to perform an EVA far outweighed the need to give one of the LII pilots his mandatory spaceflight experience. Vladimir Dzhanibekov claims that Rimantas Stankyavichus was “in the reserve” for the mission, but denied that he had been a back-up for Volk and there aren’t any official sources that say he was [55].

It isn’t even certain that the back-up crew actually would have flown in case either Dzhanibekov or Savitskaya had become disqualified for some reason. It has been assumed that the flight would only proceed if the woman conducting the EVA was Savitskaya, not Ivanova. Rumors have it that her father, Soviet Air Force Marshal Yevgeniy Savitskiy, had been one of the driving forces behind the whole flight, and although no confirmation has ever been given, several cosmonauts have not ruled out that possibility [56]. As the crew was not supposed to exchange Soyuz vehicles, there was no real operational need to fly the Soyuz T-12 mission.

Training for the mission began on 26 December 1983 and was completed on 4 July 1984. Having taken their final exams, the crew was declared ready for the flight. Soyuz T-12 was launched on 17 July 1984 and reached orbit to begin a rather uneventful flight to Salyut-7. The TASS news agency reported that “the spaceship’s flight program envisaged a link-up with the Salyut-7/Soyuz T-11 orbital complex’’, after which its crew “were to carry out scientific and technical research and experi­ments together with [the station’s resident crew]’’ [57].

With the Buran program still a state secret, nowhere was it reported or even hinted that Volk’s presence on board had anything to do with a Soviet shuttle program, nor was any indication given that his main task would come only after landing. Almost six months after the mission, the British Interplanetary Society’s Spaceflight magazine raised the question: “One puzzle: why did Volk, an experienced test pilot, occupy the passenger seat of a Soyuz T which is normally occupied by non­pilot researchers or foreign cosmonauts?” [58]. The answer, however, could not be given.

On 18 July Soyuz T-12 successfully docked with the Salyut station and Dzhanibekov, Savitskaya, and Volk were welcomed on board by Kizim, Solovyov, and Atkov. In its reports, TASS said that the program of joint operations “included technical and technological experiments, medical, biological, astrophysical and other studies, and Earth photography and observations in the fields of meteorology, geology and environmental protection’’ [59].

During the joint operations, news services did give details about the experiments that were conducted, but only very limited information was given about Volk’s activities. One interesting bit of information came from flight director Viktor Blagov, who told reporters that Volk was not taking part in any physical exercises to counter the effects of weightlessness. Instead, he was taking special tablets for that purpose, while being continuously monitored by Atkov and by doctors on Earth, both during the mission and after the flight. According to TASS, the results of this experiment would help understand how the human body reacted to spaceflight [60]. Besides this, Volk conducted two experiments that studied his eyesight. One focused on in-depth vision and the eye’s resolving power, while the other analysed his eye’s color percep­tion, its ability to discriminate between various shades of color.

Although not reported at the time, Volk also carried out an experiment called “Pilot” intended to see if his adaptation to zero-g would affect his ability to operate flight controls. For this purpose, several flight controls and display panels similar to those used on Buran were installed in the Soyuz T-12 orbital module [61].

Volk’s presence on board was almost ignored by the media, especially when Svetlana Savitskaya and Vladimir Dzhanibekov performed an EVA on 25 July that lasted a little over three and a half hours. This was the first EVA by a woman and it took place less than three months before Kathy Sullivan’s spacewalk on STS-41G.

On 29 July Dzhanibekov, Savitskaya, and Volk landed safely on Earth, 140 km southeast of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, after a flight lasting 11 days, 19 hours, and 14 minutes. Volk spent about 20 minutes suspended upside down inside the descent capsule as recovery crews struggled to remove him from the capsule. Afterwards, the cosmonauts were put in chairs to relax a little, as was tradition. But right after their initial medical check-ups, Volk was about to begin his principal experiment (not reported by the media at the time). He was taken to a helicopter that would fly him to Dzhezkazgan. Although not planned, Volk was granted permission by the pilot to occupy the co-pilot seat and take control of the helicopter. Only at that point was it realized that no one had thought of bringing Volk’s flying boots. As a result he was forced to fly the helicopter in his socks.

Immediately after arriving in Dzhezkazgan, Dzhanibekov and Savitskaya under­went the traditional welcome by Kazakh government representatives, while Volk, still without his boots, boarded a Tu-154LL Buran training aircraft and flew it to his LII home base in Zhukovskiy near Moscow. The approach and landing were performed following the flight path of a Buran shuttle returning from space. To achieve that, the engine thrust was reversed, the landing gear was lowered, and all flaps were put in such a position that they would give maximum braking effect. Under these con­ditions, the Tupolev almost fell from the sky, just like Buran would do when returning from space. As soon as he had parked the Tupolev on the tarmac, Volk donned a pressure suit, climbed aboard a MiG-25 fighter, and together with an instructor flew all the way back to Baykonur. It turned out that the space mission had not in any way adversely influenced his flying abilities, so there were no objec­tions for cosmonauts to fly Buran back from orbit [62].


According to original flight plans drawn up in the 1970s, Energiya was to begin its test flights in 1983 with two suborbital missions carrying full-scale Buran mock-ups, followed in 1984 by the first launch of an unmanned flightworthy orbiter [10]. By the early 1980s those timelines had changed significantly, as had the flight plans them­selves. The idea was now to launch an unmanned Buran into orbit on the first mission of Energiya (rocket 1L) following the completion of fueling tests with the 4M core stage and pad test firings of the 5S and 6S vehicles.

The original plan for 17 pad test firings lasting a total of 3,700 seconds was quickly laid to rest. Satisfied with the results of the 5S test firing on 25 April 1986, the MVKS decided on 5 May to significantly curtail the test-firing program and conduct just one more test firing with the 6S vehicle to reach an accumulated pad burn time of 423 seconds prior to the maiden launch of Energiya. The plan was to turn the remaining 30-second test into a combined test firing of the four RD-0120 core stage engines and the four RD-170 strap-on booster engines, something which would also have been the culmination of the original test-firing program. Consideration was also given to strapping the OK-ML1 Buran mock-up to the core stage for that test.

However, as these events unfolded, an alternative proposal from Energiya chief designer Boris Gubanov had been steadily gaining ground. That was to skip test firings of the 6S vehicle altogether and turn it into a flightworthy rocket for a test mission that would precede the flight of Energiya 1L with the Buran orbiter. In a way, it was a return to the “test-as-you-fly” philosophy so common in other Soviet space projects. Gubanov’s main argument was that if one of the test firings ended in a cataclysmic explosion, it would take two to three years to rebuild the unique test stand. Not only was the UKSS later supposed to become a launch pad, it would also continue to serve as a test stand for core stages and strap-on boosters to be flown on operational Energiya missions.

The risk of an accident would be even higher if the strap-on boosters were going to be involved in the tests as well. Rather than test-fire the rocket on the ground, Gubanov argued, it would simply be test-fired in flight. The minimum mission objective would be to fly safely for at least 30 seconds, allowing the rocket to reach a safe distance from the test stand. This would achieve the same goal as a combined 30-second ground-based test firing of the core stage and strap-ons, without running the risk of wiping out the UKSS.

The idea originated in early 1984, but it would take Gubanov almost two years to get it accepted. Gubanov made his first overture to the highest authorities in early 1985, putting forward the idea to Grigoriy V. Romanov, who as the Central Com­mittee Secretary for Defense Matters was the highest political figure in charge of the space program. However, Romanov was not convinced, electing instead to divert more resources and personnel to the space station program with the goal oflaunching the Mir core module by the next Party Congress in February 1986. The proposal initially also met with stiff opposition from NPO Energiya general designer Valentin Glushko, who at one point even said that “one wouldn’t come up with such an idea even when drunk.’’ Also opposed to the plan was launch pad chief designer Vladimir Barmin, whose organization (KBOM) would now have to turn the UKSS into a launch pad much earlier than expected. Also favoring a full-scale ground-based test firing of both the core stage and the strap-on boosters was the military community.

However, as the months progressed, events gradually turned to Gubanov’s favor. In July 1985 Romanov, once considered a leading candidate to become the next General Secretary of the Communist Party, was removed from the Politburo and from his post as Secretary for Defense Matters as part of a Party management shake-up following the election of Mikhail Gorbachov as General Secretary in March of that year. By the end of the year Gubanov had garnered support from Minister of General Machine Building Oleg Baklanov (also the head of the MVKS), who in turn convinced his ally Glushko. On 2 January 1986 Baklanov flew to the cosmodrome with a large number of leading space officials, giving them the order not to return home until an Energiya had been launched.

Long before getting the needed political support, Gubanov had secretly been making arrangements to convert the 6S core stage into a flight vehicle called 6SL (“L” standing for “flight”). He had already asked the people of the NPO Energiya Volga Branch to study this possibility during a visit to Kuybyshev in November 1984. An official industry order followed on 16 August 1985 and allowed engineers to “cannibalize” parts of the first flight-rated rocket (1L) to speed up launch prepara­tions. As a result, all elements of the core stage were in place at Baykonur by the beginning of 1986.

A key argument in getting approval for the 6SL launch was that Buran was suffering more and more delays, further pushing back the launch of Energiya 1L. An early demonstration launch of the 6SL vehicle would not only be a boost to the team, but could also help convince the country’s political leadership of the program’s feasibility. With a new wind beginning to blow through Soviet politics in the mid – 1980s, the Energiya-Buran program was finding itself on increasingly shaky ground and was in dire need of a major success. Somehow, Gubanov’s original argument for the launch—namely, to reduce the risk of a catastrophic explosion on the UKSS— had moved to the background and a 30-second combined static test firing of the 6SL core stage and strap-ons remained on the agenda even after the successful test firing of 5S in April 1986. The Military Industrial Commission set up an independent commission headed by Konstantin V. Frolov, the Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences, to look into the need for additional test firings, but this failed to give a clear-cut recommendation. However, a continuing string of successful Zenit launches and test firings of Blok-A and Zenit first stages at Nllkhimmash gradually made the test firing redundant. Energiya was ready to fly [11].

Vehicle configuration

The decision to fly a two-orbit rather than a three-day mission allowed the Russians to significantly reduce the number of on-board systems and thereby move up the launch date. Apart from requiring less sophisticated software, the shorter flight obviated the need for installing such systems as fuel cells, a payload bay door opening mechanism, payload bay door radiators, etc. The only objective of the flight was to see if Buran could safely reach orbit and return back to Earth. With no crew on board, few of the life support systems needed to support humans were carried. For instance, Buran had a 90 percent nitrogen/10 percent oxygen atmosphere to minimize the risk of fire.

Original plans called for the space-rated orbiters to be equipped with two Lyulka AL-31 turbojet engines to provide flight path modification capability during the return to Earth. For this purpose Buran had two niches on either side of the vertical stabilizer to house the engine pods. However, in late 1987/early 1988 a decision was made not to install the engines, fill the niches with panels, and cover them with ATM-19PKP flexible thermal insulation.

There is conflicting information on the reasons for this decision. One source claims the atmospheric landing tests performed with the full-scale BTS-002 vehicle had shown that control was sufficient without these engines [32]. Another says the engines were not ready for the first flight. Although they had been flown on the BTS – 002, they had never been ignited in flight, nor had the thermal protection covers for the engine inlet and outlet been tested. On top of that, there were mass-related issues that needed to be addressed before the engines were flown. Not only did the engines weigh about 400 kg each, they also required support systems such as a kerosene tank (probably to be placed in the mid fuselage under the payload bay), fire suppression systems, etc. However, once those issues had been resolved, the engines might well have flown on future missions [33]. One may also speculate that the presence of the engines would have unnecessarily complicated the automatic flight program for the maiden mission. Interestingly, the throttle lever for the AL-31 engines was not removed from Buran’s cockpit for the first flight. The removal of the AL-31 engines slightly changed the vehicle’s center of gravity and placed higher aerodynamic loads

Post-flight picture of Buran shows one of the engine niches covered with flexible thermal insulation panels (B. Vis).

on the vertical stabilizer. Therefore, additional wind tunnel tests were run to make sure that the absence of the engines posed no unexpected problems.

Buran’s cargo bay was not empty during the first flight. Sitting in the middle of the cargo bay was a pressurized module known as Unit for Additional Instruments (BDP for Blok Dopolnitelnykh Priborov) or 37KB. BDP performed a role similar to

The 37KB/BDP payload (B. Vis).

the Development Flight Instrumentation (DFI) on the orbital test flights of the US Space Shuttle. It was stowed full with instrumentation to record about 6,000 param­eters during the flight and also carried support equipment such as batteries to compensate for the absence of fuel cells on Buran’s maiden mission.

Its design was based on a series of modules (37K) originally planned for the Mir space station, only one of which (Kvant or 37KE) was eventually flown. On 19 April 1982 the KB Salyut design bureau (then a branch of NPO Energiya) received an order to develop a series of such modules for Buran that would carry out a variety of functions. Built at the Khrunichev factory, the first such module (serial nr. 37070) was shipped to Baykonur in February 1986 to be flown on the maiden mission of Buran. After having been tested in the Proton area of the cosmodrome, it was transported to the MIK OK orbiter-processing facility for installation into Buran. Weighing 7,150kg, it was 4.1m wide, 5.1m long, and had an internal volume of 37m3. The ultimate plan was to turn these modules into small scientific laboratories that could either remain in the cargo bay of Buran (like Spacelab) or be temporarily attached to space stations (see Chapter 8) [34].


Despite all the criticism, preparations continued at Baykonur for future Buran missions. In the summer of 1990 the OK-MT full-scale test orbiter spent a month on pad 37 (6 July-7 August) for crew boarding and evacuation exercises and also for tests in which the fuel cells were loaded with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

By the first half of 1991 more than two years had elapsed since the first flight, making many wonder if a second flight was going to take place at all. Space officials kept stressing that the 2K1 mission to Mir was still on and would be flown sometime in 1992. One glimmer of hope was a test roll-out of the 2K orbiter to the launch pad in May 1991.

However, it wasn’t long before Buran’s future was further thrown into doubt by events that shook the very foundations of the Soviet Union. On 19 August 1991 tanks rolled into Moscow as a group of Communist Party hardliners calling themselves the State Emergency Committee attempted to take control of the country while Gorbachov was vacationing in the Crimea. The coup was timed to prevent the signing of a new Union Treaty which would have fundamentally recast the relationship between the center and the republics in favor of the latter. Although the putsch collapsed in only three days, it accelerated the events that would lead to the dis­integration of the USSR at the end of the year. Adding to the growing unpopularity of the space program was the fact that one of the coup plotters had been Oleg Baklanov, who had been a strong supporter of the Energiya-Buran program in particular.

In the wake of the failed coup the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In the autumn of 1991 the Ministry of General Machine Building was dissolved. The rocket and space enterprises located on Russian territory were transferred to the Russian Ministry of the Industry. Many of the enterprises were expected to merge into specialized conglomerates that would be

2K vehicle on the pad in the spring of 1991. Note missing tiles (source: Luc van den Abeelen).

subordinate to an organization called Rosobshchemash. Established in October 1991 on the vestiges of the Ministry of General Machine Building, it would act as a middleman between the Russian government and other nations for space and defense project orders. It was headed by outgoing MOM minister Oleg Shishkin, with Yuriy Koptev acting as his deputy for space matters. However, several leading companies, including NPO Energiya, refused to join Rosobshchemash. As Koptev later recalled, the organization was ineffective in bringing together the Russian space industry. In December 1991 leading space officials requested the government to set up a Russian Space Agency, in response to which a special commission was created led by Yegor Gaydar, the Minister of Economy and Finance [14].

The committee’s findings were presented to President Boris Yeltsin during a key meeting at the Kremlin on 18 February 1992. It was attended among others by Yuriy Semyonov, Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, TsNIIMash director Vladimir Utkin, Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences Yevgeniy Velikhov and Koptev, who had been Gaydar’s deputy in the committee and was the leading candidate to head the new agency. While the formation of the agency topped the agenda, the meeting also addressed the future of specific programs. Opening the meeting, Yeltsin spoke out against the continuation of the Energiya-Buran program. Semyonov countered the President by saying that its cancellation would be a repeat of the flawed decision to terminate the N-l program in the 1970s and would deal an irreparable blow to the country’s scientific, technical, military, and industrial potential. Semyonov was sup­ported by Koptev and Utkin, while Velikhov echoed Yeltsin’s sentiments, calling for an immediate shutdown of the program. The official minutes of the meeting said the future of the Energiya-Buran program would require further analysis, but according to the official history of NPO Energiya “all present at the meeting felt that the fate of the program had been sealed.’’ On 25 February 1992 Yeltsin issued an edict approv­ing the establishment of the Russian Space Agency (RKA) [15].