Category Energiya-Buran


The decree (nr. 123-51) was finally issued by the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the Council of Ministers of the USSR on 17 February 1976 and called “On the Development of a Reusable Space System and Future Space Complexes’’. In the typical style of those days, the official go-ahead for the Soviet shuttle was literally worded as follows:

“The Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the Council of Ministers, attaching special importance to increasing the defense capabilities of the country and strengthening the work to create future space complexes for solving military, economic, and scientific tasks, has decided: (1) to accept the proposals of the Ministry of General Machine Building, the Ministry of Defense of the USSR, and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR to create a Reusable Space System consisting of a rocket boost stage, an orbital plane, an interorbital tug, a complex to control the system, launch, landing and repair complexes, and other ground-based means to launch into northeasterly orbits with an altitude of 200 kilometers payloads weighing up to 30 tons and return to the launch and landing complex payloads weighing up to 20 tons and with the purpose of:

– counteracting the measures taken by the likely adversary to expand the use of space for military purposes;

– solving purposeful tasks in the interests of defense, the national economy, and science;

– carrying out military and applications research and experiments in space to support the development of space battle systems using weapons based on known and new physical principles;

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The historic February 1976 government and party decree on Buran (source: OmV Luch/Russian Space Agency).




– putting into near-Earth orbits, servicing in these orbits, and returning to Earth space vehicles for different purposes, delivering to space stations cosmonauts and cargo and returning them back to Earth..[25].

Underscoring the military motives for developing the Soviet shuttle, the decree placed the Ministry of Defense in charge of determining the system’s specifications. MOM was assigned as the lead ministry to develop the shuttle and associated space weaponry. MAP was tasked with developing the orbiter’s airframe as well as building the runway and its associated equipment and the carrier aircraft to ferry the orbiter to the launch site.

Not surprisingly, Glushko’s NPO Energiya became the lead organization for the shuttle under MOM, performing a role similar to that of a “prime contractor’’ in the West. Igor Sadovskiy remained the system’s chief designer. The choice of an organ­ization within MAP was less obvious. Probably, the most logical choice would have been MMZ Zenit’s space branch in Dubna (now part of DPKO Raduga), which had been working on the Spiral project for a decade. However, MAP minister Pyotr Dementyev decided to set up a new organization called NPO Molniya, which was an amalgam of three existing design bureaus: MKB Molniya, MKB Burevestnik, and Myasishchev’s Experimental Machine Building Factory (EMZ). Only EMZ had earlier experience with spaceplane projects, having proposed a futuristic single – stage-to-orbit spaceplane called M-19 in response to the Space Shuttle (see Chapter 9). Given the limited background of the three organizations in space-related work, some leading specialists of MMZ Zenit and the Dubna space branch were transferred to NPO Molniya to occupy the leading positions. These included Spiral chief designer Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, who was placed in charge of the new organization, and his deputy Gennadiy Dementyev, the son of the MAP minister. NPO Molniya was officially created on the basis of MAP orders dated 24 February and 15 March 1976 (see Chapter 4) [26].

The decree was not just restricted to the Soviet shuttle, it also sanctioned the development of multimodular space stations (what would eventually become Mir), a new type of Soyuz ship to transport cosmonauts to those stations (what later became Soyuz-T) as well as a system of geostationary data relay satellites called GKKRS (Global Space Command-Relay System) (what would eventually become Geyzer and Luch/Altair). Surprisingly, it also ordered NPO Energiya to work out a preliminary design in 1976-1978 for a “Lunar Expeditionary Complex’’ in 1976-1978, essentially a continuation of the Zvezda work begun in the middle of 1974. However, the project does not seem to have received much support and was closed down by a commission headed by Keldysh in 1978 [27]. In a final attempt to keep his lunar aspirations alive, Glushko tabled a proposal for a more modest manned lunar project using the Energiya rocket, but this never saw the light of day either [28].

However, if any Soviet cosmonauts were going to the Moon anytime soon, it was certainly not going to be on the N-1. With work on the ill-fated Moon rocket already suspended in 1974, the decree now officially terminated all work on the N-1/L-3 project, although it did call for using the N-1’s cosmodrome infrastructure to the maximum extent possible.

Official approval of the Soviet shuttle came more than four years after President Nixon’s Space Shuttle decision. In some ways this slow response was reminiscent of the Soviets’ 1964 decision to go to the Moon, which was made more than three years after President Kennedy’s announcement of the Apollo program. The official history of NPO Energiya gives both political and strategic motives for the decision:

on the one hand [the Reusable Space System] was to consolidate the leading position of the USSR in the exploration of space and on the other hand [it] was to exclude the possible technical and military [advantage], connected with the appearance among the potential enemy of the… Space Shuttle, a principally new technical means of delivering to near-Earth orbit and returning to Earth payloads of significant masses’’ [29].

While national prestige certainly played a role in the Buran decision, it was not as dominant as it had been in the Moon race. For one, there was no intention to upstage the US Space Shuttle. The maiden flight of the Soviet shuttle was planned for no earlier than 1983, which was four years later than the expected launch date of the first Space Shuttle. Clearly, the driving force behind Buran was the urge to maintain strategic parity with the United States. As far as the Russians were concerned, Buran was just another part of the Cold War. Another government/party decree in 1976 ordered NPO Energiya to begin studies of space-based weapons “for combat opera­tions in and from space’’, in which the new heavy-lift launch vehicles and the shuttle would play a crucial role (see Chapter 6).

This is not to say there was unanimous support for the project among the military. The payloads for the shuttle and the super-heavy boosters derived from it were not clearly defined. With the benefit of hindsight, the official history of the Military Space Forces says:

“There was no well-founded need for the USSR Ministry of Defense [to develop] such a system. Buran’s main characteristics were close to those of the Space Shuttle and it had [the same] shortcomings, and moreover it was even less economical” [30].

Despite all the similarities, there was also a basic difference with the American Shuttle philosophy. The Space Shuttle was advocated as a system that would replace all existing expendable launch vehicles and launch all types of payloads (both govern­ment and commercial), a decision for which NASA had to pay dearly after the Challenger disaster in 1986. The Soviet shuttle was never intended to be a substitute for expendable launch vehicles, but a system that would be used exclusively for tasks that could not be handled by conventional rockets, such as the launch of heavy payloads and the maintenance and retrieval of satellites in orbit.


The system

The term used for the Soviet shuttle program in the February 1976 party/government decree was Reusable Space System (Mnogorazovaya Kosmicheskaya Sistema or MKS). This covered not only the rocket and orbiter, but extended to the interorbital space tug mentioned in the decree as well as the cosmodrome infrastructure needed to prepare, launch, and land the vehicle. MKS is probably the closest equivalent to “(National) Space Transportation System” ((N)STS) in the United States (officially changed into “Space Shuttle Program” in 1990).

On 27 May 1976 chief designer Igor Sadovskiy approved an MKS structure consisting of 13 elements, each of which got its own Ministry of Defense designator beginning with the number 11. Others were added later in the program. The flight hardware was given the following designators:

– the orbiter: 11F35;

– the core stage: 11K25Ts;

– the strap-on boosters: 11K25A;

– the interorbital space tug: 11F45.

The MKS itself received the designator 1K11K25. Combinations of individual elements got their own designators. The most important ones were [73]:

– core stage + strap-on boosters: 11K25;

– core stage + strap-on boosters + orbiter: 11F36.

Another term used later in the program was Universal Rocket and Space Trans­portation System (Universalnaya Raketno-Kosmicheskaya Transportnaya Sistema or URKTS), which seems to have referred more specifically to the rocket family, reflecting the fact that Energiya could also fly with two or eight strap-on boosters and carry other payloads than the orbiter. The word “reusable” was reportedly not included because the reusability of the strap-on boosters had not yet been demon­strated, nor would it ever be [74].

The combination of orbiter and rocket was also known as the Reusable Rocket Space Complex (Mnogorazovyy Raketno-Kosmicheskiy Kompleks or MRKK). A general word for the spaceplane, comparable with Orbiter in the US, was “Orbital Ship” (Orbitalnyy Korabl or OK). The core stage was called “Central Block” (Blok-Ts in Russian spelling) and the strap-on boosters “Block-A” (Blok-A). “Block” is a commonly used word in Russian to designate rocket stages. It also appears in the names of famous upper stages such as the Blok-D and Blok-L.

Of course, the orbiter and rocket became known to the world in the late 1980s by the less prosaic names Buran and Energiya. While the name Energiya was specifically invented for public consumption late in the program, the name Buran was used in internal documentation from the very beginning, long before the program entered the public domain.

The word buran, imported into Russian from the Turkish language family, refers to a violent, cold northeast wind in the Central Asian steppes that lifts snow from the ground, usually during the winter. The same wind also occurs, but less frequently, in summer, when it darkens the skies by raising dust clouds and is then called karaburan (“black buran”). Although usually translated simply as “snowstorm”, buran is not the general Russian word for a snowstorm, but a much more specific term that could better be defined as “a blizzard in the steppes”.

The name Buran had already been applied to a canceled cruise missile designed by the OKB-23 Myasishchev bureau in the 1950s (see Chapter 1). Of course, Myasishchev later became closely involved in the shuttle program as head of the Experimental Machine Building Factory (EMZ) and one might speculate that the suggestion to recycle the name came from him.

The first use of the name Buran in connection with the Soviet shuttle seems to have come in NPO Energiya’s proposals for the OS-120 design in 1975. Since this was the Space Shuttle type integrated configuration with an external tank and the main engines on the orbiter, it referred to the whole stack, not the orbiter individually. Even after the final decision had been made to turn the external tank into the second stage, the name Buran continued to be used for the combination of the now engineless orbiter and its launch vehicle (and therefore denoted the same as “11F36” and “MRKK”). For some reason, NPO Energiya’s internal RLA-130 designator for the rocket did not become established. The configuration in which the orbiter was replaced by an unmanned cargo canister was known as Buran-T. The common name for orbiter and rocket caused quite some confusion in the space community and was sometimes conveniently misused by opponents to criticize the system as a whole while reacting to problems with one of the two elements [75].

The name Energiya was not coined until May 1987, when the Russians needed to make a public announcement about the rocket’s first launch. In contrast to earlier plans this was not flown with a shuttle, but with a quickly improvised payload called Polyus. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov visited the Baykonur cosmodrome in the final days prior to the launch, Glushko proposed the name Energiya, mainly because this was one of the buzzwords of Gorbachov’s policy of perestroyka. The fact that it was also the name of Glushko’s design bureau was probably less convincing to Gorbachov [76]. By giving the rocket an individual name, the Russians also under­lined that this was a launch vehicle in its own right, capable of launching not only shuttles, but other heavy payloads as well [77]. Of course, not enough time was left to paint the new name on the rocket as there was for the second launch.

Lower deck (“Aggregate Compartment’’ or AO)

The lower deck contained life support systems such as air ducts, condensate col­lectors, oxygen tanks, regenerators, the toilet’s waste collection system, and a fire extinguisher bottle. Also installed here were elements of the vehicle’s thermal control and power supply systems. The lower deck could be reached by crew members via panels in the floor of the mid-deck.

It should be noted that the fully outfitted crew module as described above was never flown. Since the one and only mission performed by a Buran orbiter was unmanned, the cabin was stripped of much of the equipment essential to support a crew [16].

AltitudejVelocity Parameter System (SVSP)

The SVSP consisted of air data probes extended from Buran at an altitude of 20 km to measure barometric altitude, true and indicated airspeed, Mach speed, angle of attack, and dynamic pressure, and display that data for the commander and pilot in the cockpit. The SVSP was only supposed to correct the vertical channel of the inertial navigation system in emergency situations where other navigation aids failed, helping the crew to guide Buran to a manual touchdown. The SVSP was the equivalent of the Shuttle’s Air Data System.

High-Altitude Radio Altimeter (RVB) and Low-Altitude Radio Altimeter (RVM)

The RVB was designed for accurate measurements of geometrical altitude using the principle of impulse modulation of an emitted signal. Its information was only supposed to be used for actual flight trajectory changes when the orbiter flew over flat terrain (because the local relief was not necessarily at the same level as the runway) or in emergency situations, where it could have been used to provide elevation data in conjunction with the air data probes.

The RVM accurately measured the altitude above the runway from flare-out at an altitude of 20 m to touchdown as well as absolute flight altitude under 1 km. The RVB has no equivalent on the Shuttle, whereas the RVM performs the same role as the Shuttle’s Radar Altimeters.

The on-board and ground-based components of the RDS, RSBN, and RMS were known together as the Vympel (“Pennant’’) system and were developed by VNIIRA under the leadership of Gennadiy N. Gromov. Vympel also included three ground – based radar complexes that monitored the vehicle’s adherence to the calculated flight path during approach and landing. Each of the complexes contained two radars. The first complex (TRLK-10K or Skala-MK) acquired the vehicle at a distance of about 400 km, using both primary (skin-echo) and secondary (transponder) signals, with the transponder reply transmitting such data as altitude, speed, and heading. At a distance of about 200 km an intermediate-range radar complex (E-511 or Ilmen) took over flight path monitoring. Precision approach radars (E-516V or Volkhov- P) monitored the final approach and landing [24].

Scientific level

Although Energiya-Buran was not a scientific program, institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences did considerable R&D in support of the project. Among them were the Institute of Applied Mathematics (IPM) (software development) and the Institute of Applied Mechanics (IPRIM) (research on heat-resistant materials). Many leading figures in the Soviet space industry were members of the Academy, including Valentin Glushko. Presidents of the Academy of Sciences during the Buran years were Mstislav V. Keldysh (1961-1975), Anatoliy P. Aleksandrov (1975-1986), and Guriy I. Marchuk (1986-1991).

Umbrella organizations

With 73 ministries and departments and about 1,200 organizations and enterprises involved in the Energiya-Buran program, there was also a need for several bodies to manage the program beyond institutional borders. The most important of these was the Interdepartmental Coordinating Council (MVKS). Created in July 1976, this was the leading body overseeing the Energiya-Buran program. It included representatives from all the ministries involved in the program as well as the general and chief designers, the heads of the main manufacturing facilities, and several leading scientists. Originally, it was headed by the first deputy head of the Ministry of General Machine Building B. V. Valmont, but from July 1981 on by the MOM minister himself, with the commander of GUKOS serving as his deputy. During its meetings, usually held at the Baykonur cosmodrome, MVKS discussed key technical and organizational aspects of the Energiya-Buran program. Its decisions had the same authority as those made by the Council of Ministers and needed to be implemented immediately, which is why MVKS was sometimes referred to as a “mini Council of Ministers”. The only comparable entity in the Soviet space program until then had been the Council for the Problems of Mastering the Moon (or simply the “Lunar Council”), formed in 1966 to run the N-1/L-3 piloted lunar-landing program, although it is not entirely clear if that had the same powers as MVKS in the Energiya – Buran program.

Also playing an important role in the program was the Interdepartmental Expert Commission (MEK), established in January 1977. Headed by TsNIIMash director Yuriy Mozzhorin, MEK consisted of about 70 leading representatives of the main organizations involved in Energiya-Buran. Its initial task was to review the basic design of the Energiya-Buran system, but it continued to play an important role after the design had been frozen, mainly in safety and quality control. For this purpose working groups were set up by the MEK, which made over 2,000 recommendations to improve the Energiya-Buran system.

Finally, there was the Council of Chief Designers (SGK), a body set up in the late 1940s by Sergey Korolyov that initially consisted of the six chief designers involved in missile programs (Korolyov, Glushko, Barmin, Kuznetsov, Pilyugin, and Ryazanskiy). The Council brought together individuals who were subordinate to different ministries and thereby circumvented the normal chain of command in the industry, facilitating swifter and more efficient work.

While SGK was an influential and rather unorthodox management institution under Korolyov, it gradually evolved into a bureaucratic organization under Mishin and Glushko. The agenda was often set weeks or months in advance without taking into account new developments. Meetings were now also attended by representatives of the Central Committee, the ministries, and the Military Industrial Commission, with the chief designers often electing to send their deputies rather than go them­selves. Decisions by the Council were officially unanimous, but were in actual fact made solely by the chairman, even if there were objections from other members. This changed in 1983, when decisions of the Council had to be endorsed by the signatures of all members. Although this move complicated the conduct of the meetings, it did make the decisions more authoritative. Chaired by Valentin Glushko and later by Yuriy Semyonov, the Council met weekly at NPO Energiya to discuss ongoing technical issues, including those regarding the Energiya-Buran program. Glushko and later Semyonov bore personal responsibility for the implementation of those decisions [1].

The Universal Test Stand and Launch Pad (UKSS)

One of the lessons learned from the ill-fated N-1 program was the need to build a test stand for full-scale test firings of the Energiya’s rocket stages. The site selected for the test stand was situated several kilometers to the northwest of the Raskat complex, where any explosions would not damage buildings in the Technical Zone. The test stand was designed to support both individual as well as joint test firings of the core stage and strap-on boosters. The opportunity to test the rocket’s engines in actual flight configuration minimized the risk of catastrophic launch failures and was one of the reasons the Energiya-Buran pads remained relatively close to the Technical Zone.

Designed to withstand the pressure of an Energiya rocket bolted to the pad and producing 3,600 tons of thrust for dozens of seconds, the test stand could also be easily converted into a launch pad for Energiya rockets with payloads other than Buran and also for the massive Vulkan rocket, an Energiya with eight strap-on

The Universal Test Stand and Launch Pad (source: www. buran. ru).

boosters. It therefore became known as the Universal Test Stand and Launch Pad (UKSS or 17P31).

The UKSS had one fixed service tower, almost identical to the “fueling tower” of the Energiya-Buran pads. It also featured an equally high mobile tower that provided access to virtually every part of the rocket and was equipped with a crane for hoisting operations. The UKSS had one enormous flame trench with a depth of 40 m that could easily be seen on satellite photographs of the cosmodrome. Being exposed to much higher temperatures and acoustic pressures than the Raskat pads, the UKSS had a much more elaborate sound suppression water system, consisting of three reservoirs containing a total of 18,000 m3 of water which was sprayed onto the pad at a maximum rate of 18 m3 per second. The UKSS was surrounded by two lightning protection towers and several floodlight towers. A special propellant storage complex was built several kilometers from the pad. Several support facilities for the UKSS were located at the neighboring Site 250A. The most important of these was a control center some 3 km from the test stand which was designed to withstand an on-the-pad explosion.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the UKSS was held on 20 August 1978. The stand was supposed to have been ready for the first test firings in 1982, but construc­tion ran into serious delays. Initially, the prime contractor for the construction of the facility was NIIKhimmash, which operated several rocket engine test stands at a site north of Moscow not far from Zagorsk. However, because it was of the utmost importance to have the test stand ready before the Energiya-Buran pads, it was decided early on to assign the task to the leading launch pad design bureau KBOM, while NHkhimmash remained in charge of the actual test-firing program.

The first roll-out of an Energiya mock-up to the UKSS took place in early 1983. The pad was used for a series of core stage fueling tests with the Energiya 4M vehicle in 1985. Original plans for individual and joint test firings of the core stage and the strap-on boosters were severely curtailed. In 1986 the UKSS witnessed two test firings of the core stage of the Energiya 5S vehicle. These test firings were to continue with Energiya 6S, but in 1985 a decision was made to turn that vehicle into a flightworthy rocket (redesignated 6SL) and fly it with a payload called Polyus. As a result, the UKSS was converted into a launch pad much earlier than planned. The launch of Energiya 6SL took place on 15 May 1987 and, although the rocket operated flaw­lessly, the payload was not inserted into orbit due to a navigation error. The pad itself was seriously damaged because the sound suppression water system failed to operate (see Chapter 6) [15].

The planned Soyuz mission of Rimantas Stankyavichus

When Levchenko died of a brain tumor just eight months after his space mission, the new Buran back-up crew (Stankyavichus-Zabolotskiy) was again without spaceflight experience. Therefore, LII started pursuing another Soyuz mission, with Stankyavichus as the prime candidate.

The final decision to go ahead with the mission was jointly made in February 1989 by the Ministers of General Machine Building, the Aviation Industry, Public Health, and Defense as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, the head of UNKS (the “military space forces’’), and the President of the Academy of Sciences. The plan was for Stankyavichus to go up with Mir’s EO-6 resident crew (Solovyov – Balandin) aboard Soyuz TM-9 in September 1989 and return a week later with the EO-5 crew (Viktorenko-Serebrov) aboard Soyuz TM-8. Stankyavichus and Zabolotskiy got down to training at Star City in March 1989. At the time, the EO-6 crew was busy performing back-up duties for the EO-5 mission (then scheduled for launch in April 1989), which is why the two LII pilots were temporarily teamed up with the EO-6 back-up crews:

Viktor Afanasyev Gennadiy Manakov

Vitaliy Sevastyanov Gennadiy Strekalov

Rimantas Stankyavichus Viktor Zabolotskiy

As Stankyavichus got down to training, the Mir flight schedule underwent changes that would jeopardize his Soyuz mission. In February, due to delays in the launch of Mir add-on modules, the EO-5 prime and back-up flight engineers had swapped places, with Viktorenko and Balandin now scheduled to go up in April to be replaced by Solovyov and Serebrov in September. That in itself was no problem for Stankyavichus, but in March the Soyuz spacecraft he was supposed to fly in September was seriously damaged during testing in a vacuum chamber at the Baykonur cosmodrome and had to be sent back to NPO Energiya for repairs. This meant that it would not be available as a back-up vehicle for the launch of Soyuz TM-8 in April. As a result, a decision was made that the EO-4 crew (Volkov, Krikalyov, Polyakov) would return to Earth in April and leave Mir behind unmanned until September, when the originally planned EO-5 crew

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Anatoliy Zhernavkov (a doctor from TsPK and one-time cosmonaut candidate himself), Stankyavichus, Afanasyev, Sevastyanov, and Yevgeniy Khludeyev (former cosmonaut and head of the TsPK department responsible for survival training, and crew recovery) are shown during sea recovery training in preparation for Soyuz TM-9 (B. Vis files).

(Viktorenko-Serebrov) would be launched on Soyuz TM-8. The ЕО-6/Soyuz TM-9 launch was delayed until February 1990.

At first sight, the only implication for Stankyavichus was that his mission would now take place in February 1990 rather than September 1989. However, because of the postponement, NPO Energiya now refused to fly Stankyavichus, arguing that the Soyuz TM-8 descent capsule would be needed to return 100 kg of additional cargo. In correspondence with MOM and NPO Energiya, LII officials and test pilots as well as the Minister of the Aviation Industry strongly urged to fly Stankyavichus in February 1990 anyway, citing several reasons.

First, the additional cargo could be returned in newly developed ballistic capsules called Raduga that were scheduled to begin flying on Progress spacecraft later in 1990. Second, the February mission possibly was Stankyavichus’ last oppor­tunity to fly for several years. A Japanese journalist was scheduled to fly during the EO-7/EO-8 handover in late 1990 and there was public pressure to fly a Soviet journalist before that during the EO-6/EO-7 handover in the summer of 1990. After that, all Soyuz passenger seats were reserved for foreign cosmonauts until at least 1993, by which time Buran was expected to make its first manned flight. An additional argument for urgency was that Stankyavichus was an ethnic Lithuanian, all this at a time when the spillover from the 1989 upheavals in Eastern Europe began reverberating throughout the Baltic republics. Indeed, Lithuania would become the first Baltic republic to proclaim its renewed independence in March 1990 [68].

Despite the pleas from MAP and LII, Stankyavichus and Zabolotskiy were forced to suspend their training at Star City in September 1989. Both were assigned to conduct one or more approach and landing tests on the BTS-002. Although the two did a preparatory ground run in December 1989, they would not take the vehicle to the skies. Another opportunity for Stankyavichus to get his space legs did present itself during the EO-6/EO-7 handover in August 1990. The third seat on Soyuz TM-10 became available due to delays in the Soviet journalist-in-space project, but for unknown reasons Stankyavichus was not offered the ride. Tragically, Stankyavichus died in a plane crash in Italy in September 1990. With no further Soyuz slots immediately available and the future of Buran ever more hanging in the balance, no further Soyuz familiarization flights were planned for the Buran back-up crew members that replaced him.

The mission

Skif-DM’s FSB section was delivered to Baykonur in May 1986, followed by the Payload Module in July 1986. Amazingly, the latter had been built virtually from scratch in less than a year’s time. Final assembly of the spacecraft took place in the Proton area of the cosmodrome. The originally planned launch date of September 1986 turned out to be overly optimistic and initially slipped to 15 February 1987 and later to April. In late January 1987 both Energiya 6SF and Polyus were transferred to the MZK, where they were mated on 3 February. Roll-out to the UKSS, which had been quickly modified to serve as a launch pad, took place on 11 February 1987.

Meanwhile, the political tides in Moscow had been turning against Skif-DM’s intended mission, which did not fit in with Mikhail Gorbachov’s propaganda campaign against America’s SDI program. During a US-Soviet summit in Reykjavik in October 1986, Gorbachov and Reagan had come close to striking a radical arms reduction deal, but the talks had finally stalled over Reagan’s refusal to abandon SDI. Despite all the carefully concocted cover-up stories for Skif-DM, the Russians were probably well aware that it wouldn’t take Western analysts long to figure out what the spacecraft’s real mission was. Clearly under political pressure, the State Commission in charge of the flight decided in February to cancel all the “battle station’’ related experiments—namely, deployment of the targets, tests of the laser-pointing mechanism, and release of the xenon and krypton gas. Save for the technological and geophysical experiments, Skif-DM would now essentially fly a passive one-month mission before deorbiting itself above the Pacific. One wonders if this type of mission wouldn’t have spawned even more rumors than it was supposed to avoid.

The Energiya-Skif-DM stack (also known as 14A02) spent more than three months on the pad, braving temperatures between —27° and +30°C. Finally, by early May all the tests and preparations had been completed. Actually, the launch could have taken place earlier, were it not for the fact that it was timed to coincide with a visit to Baykonur by Gorbachov in mid-May. Cosmodrome workers were not informed of the impending visit, but became suspicious when they were asked to repeat the same checks over and over again. There is conflicting information as to whether Gorbachov was supposed to watch the launch or not. One version has it that he was offered the opportunity to witness the launch, but declined. Other sources say

Skif-DM/Polyus on the UKSS (source: www. buran. ru).

Gorbachov touring Baykonur facilities in May 1987 (source: www. buran. ru).

the State Commission in charge of the mission decided not to push its luck and delayed the launch from 12 May to 15 May, by which time Gorbachov would have returned to Moscow. Officially, Gorbachov would be told the launch had been postponed for technical reasons.

Gorbachov arrived at the space center’s Yubileynyy runway on 11 May and watched the launch of a Proton rocket with a Gorizont communications satellite later that day. On 12 May he was treated to a tour of the Energiya-Buran facilities. After inspecting the Energiya-Polyus poised for launch on the UKSS, Gorbachov was taken to one of the Energiya-Buran pads, where an Energiya rocket with the OK-MT Buran model strapped to its side had been erected for a series of tests. He also visited the Energiya and Buran assembly buildings.

As Boris Gubanov recalls in his memoirs, Gorbachov made several remarks during the tour that raised serious doubts about his support for the program and left a bitter aftertaste among the space officials accompanying him. He openly questioned whether Buran would have any future applications and on several occasions voiced his opposition to the militarization of space, of which Buran was supposed to be part and parcel. He even expressed skepticism about the readiness of Energiya, although later that day he informed the launch team that the Politburo had given its official approval for the launch. He also approved Glushko’s suggestion to officially call the rocket Energiya. Up till then the rocket had received no individual name, with “Buran” being used to refer to the combination of the rocket and the orbiter and “Buran-T” for the combination of the rocket and an unmanned payload canister. On 13 May, Gorbachov was on his way back to Moscow, after having watched the launch of a Zenit rocket with a Tselina-2 electronic intelligence satellite.

In another demonstration of glasnost, the TASS news agency issued a statement on Gorbachov’s visit later that day, saying:

“Right now preparations are underway at the cosmodrome to launch a new universal rocket carrier, capable of placing into near-Earth orbits both reusable orbital ships and large-size spacecraft for scientific and economic purposes, including modules for long-term space stations.’’

This was the first confirmation by TASS of the existence of a new heavy-lift launch system and a Soviet shuttle vehicle. However, there were still limits to openness when it came to the launch of an untried launch vehicle. While Soviet television and radio had begun carrying live coverage of manned Soyuz launches in March 1986, the exact launch date for Energiya was kept secret and TV images of the launch would not be released until after it had taken place.

The launch of Energiya was targeted for 15 May at 15:00 Moscow winter time (12: 00 gmt). Fueling of the rocket got underway at 8: 30 with the loading of liquid oxygen in the core stage and strap-on boosters. However, problems with the gaseous helium supply to one of the strap-on boosters and also a stuck valve in the core stage’s liquid hydrogen tank pushed back the launch 5.5 hours. By that time the sun had set at Baykonur, but, since the payload did not impose any launch window constraints, the launch team decided to press ahead. At T — 10 minutes the countdown entered the so-called “pre-launch phase’’, with all operations being controlled automatically. Any hold during this final part of the countdown would automatically lead to a scrub. A major malfunction did occur with less than a minute to go in the countdown, when the sound suppression water system could not be activated. Although this would lead to higher than usual thermal and acoustic loads on the vehicle and the pad, tests conducted at NIIkhimmash had shown that Energiya could safely lift off without the sound suppression water. Therefore, computers had been programmed not to stop the countdown in the unlikely event such a failure took place.

With about 9 seconds left in the countdown, Energiya’s four RD-0120 engines roared to life. As the huge cryogenic engines built up thrust, the four RD-170 engines of the strap-on rockets were ignited at T — 3 seconds and, with all engines having reached full thrust, Energiya 6SL leapt off the pad at 21: 30 Moscow time (17: 30 gmt), lighting up the night sky at Baykonur. Just moments later onlookers saw to their consternation how the rocket significantly leaned over in the direction of Polyus, only to stabilize itself as it cleared the tower. Energiya’s automatic stabiliza­tion system had been programmed to remain inactive until T + 3 seconds to ensure that it would not command the engine nozzles to gimbal as they emerged from the Blok-Ya launch table adapter. Therefore, the deviation from the trajectory had been more or less expected, but not everyone watching the launch was aware of this and for a few hair-raising moments it seemed as if Energiya would befall the same fate as its

illustrious predecessor, the N-1. For the next launch the stabilization system was programmed to kick in earlier to prevent a repeat of this scenario.

Having cleared the tower, Energiya initiated a roll and pitch maneuver to place itself on the proper azimuth for a 64.6° inclination orbit. There had been some debate in the months prior to launch whether to put Polyus into a 50.7° or 64.6° orbit. A launch resulting in the lower inclination would have allowed Energiya to be about 5 tons heavier, but at the same time would briefly carry the rocket over the territories of Mongolia, China, and Japan. An argument against a 64.6° inclination orbit was that launches were not possible between mid-May and August because the strap-on boosters and Polyus’ payload shroud would impact in the nesting grounds of the pink flamingo, a protected species that has its breeding season during that time of the year. In the end, concerns about Energiya debris raining down on foreign territory seem to have outweighed any environmental arguments.

Managers breathed a sigh of relief at T + 30 seconds, by which time Energiya 6SL had moved far enough downrange to prevent damage to the UKSS in case of an explosion. Also, the objectives of the originally planned combined static test firing of the core stage and strap-on boosters had now been achieved. Any success beyond that was a bonus as far as managers were concerned. To their delight, Energiya continued to perform outstandingly. The four strap-ons were separated from the core stage at T + 2m26s, and at T + 3m34s Polyus shed the shroud that had protected its upper FSB section against the aerodynamic pressures experienced during the early stages of launch. At T + 7m39s the RD-0120 engines shut down, followed moments later by the separation of Polyus from the core stage, which according to unconfirmed reports came down relatively intact in the Pacific Ocean [12]. The Energiya control room at Baykonur erupted into applause, but while Energiya had completed its job, Polyus still had some critical maneuvers to do.

Not having reached orbital velocity yet, Polyus now was to perform two burns of its FSB main engines to place itself into a circular 280 km orbit. With the FSB section placed on top (as during a TKS launch on Proton), Polyus first had to carry out a 180° flip maneuver around its z-axis so that the engines would face aft for the burns, followed by a 90° roll around its v-axis. Unfortunately, due to a programming error, the FSB’s thrusters failed to stop the flip maneuver and by the time the main engines were ignited Polyus was not oriented properly and as a result deorbited itself. Later analysis showed that the thrusters had been deactivated by a command usually issued during a TKS launch that somehow had not been erased for the Polyus launch.

The official TASS launch statement released the following day acknowledged the failure to place the payload into orbit:

“The second stage of the rocket delivered a satellite mock-up to the required point, but due to a malfunction of its on-board systems the mock-up did not go into the planned orbit and splashed down in the Pacific.’’

The day after the launch Soviet television viewers were treated to spectacular shots of the super-booster on its launch pad. One of the television shots offered a side view of the payload, revealing it to be a black pencil-shaped object. However, photographs

released subsequently only showed the aft part of Energiya, hiding Polyus from view. It was not until many years later that detailed photographs and descriptions of the payload became available.

The loss of Polyus was a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the designers and engineers of KB Salyut and Khrunichev, who had managed to get the improvised payload ready for launch in such a short period of time. Another setback was the significant damage to the UKSS launch pad, caused by the problem with the sound suppression water system and the rocket’s deviation from its trajectory shortly after lift-off. The Blok-Ya launch table adapter, designed to support at least 10 launches, was rendered useless because thermal protection covers had been either torn loose or closed too late.

Still, the primary goal of the launch had been to test Energiya and demonstrate its capability to carry a heavy payload and both these objectives had been accom­plished. Particularly useful for the subsequent Buran mission was the use of the same systems needed to separate the vehicle from the core stage. Moreover, all the four technological experiments and even some of the geophysical experiments planned for launch and the post-separation phase were actually carried out successfully. Energiya had performed better than anyone could have hoped and was declared ready to carry Buran on its next mission [13].

Preparing Buran

The orbiter for the first space mission (vehicle 1K, mission 1K1) arrived at the Baykonur cosmodrome on a VM-T carrier aircraft on 11 December 1985. Although eventually called Buran, it had the name Baykal painted on its side until at least April 1988 (see Chapter 2). The MIK OK orbiter-processing building on Site 254 was only 50/60 percent ready, with only one of the five bays (bay 104) available. The decision to send Buran to Baykonur so early came in an apparent response to the August 1985 government/party decree calling for a maiden mission in late 1986. The move was also designed to stimulate and speed up work at Baykonur. For the same purpose MOM minister Oleg Baklanov flew to Baykonur in January 1986 and set up three teams to prepare for the flight: the first team (headed by Yuriy Semyonov) had to ensure that Buran was ready for flight in the third quarter of 1987, the second team (led by Boris Gubanov) had to concentrate on readiness of Energiya-Buran as a whole, and the third team (led by Baklanov’s deputy S. S. Vanin) focused on readying

launch facilities and other ground equipment. Between January and March 1986 the number of people working at the Buran processing facility rose from a mere 60 to 1,800.

Not only the Buran facilities but also the orbiter itself was far from ready when it arrived at the cosmodrome. This was related not only to the earlier than planned shipping date, but also to the limited payload capacity of the VM-T aircraft. Many systems needed for orbital flight as well as major components such as the vertical stabilizer and landing gear had not yet been installed. Furthermore, only 70 percent of the thermal protection tiles had been installed, making it necessary to set up a special tile-manufacturing facility in the Buran processing facility.

In the summer of 1987 leading program officials were invited to attend a meeting of the Defense Council, the supreme decision-making body on national security issues. Chaired by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov, it included the highest party and military officials in the Soviet Union such as the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. At the meeting, the officials pledged to launch Buran in the first quarter of 1988, although some (including Boris Gubanov) privately had strong doubts the orbiter would make that target date [36]. Presumably, Soviet space officials were under pressure to launch Buran before the post-Challenger return to flight of the US Space Shuttle, then planned for June 1988.

Final assembly of Buran was not officially completed until 15 October 1987, after which the vehicle was transferred to MIK OK’s control and test bay for electric tests and to the anechoic chamber for tests of the radio systems. It had already spent some time in those bays before completion of assembly to uncover any potential problems at an early stage. On 15 February 1988 preparations began for test firings of the ODU propulsion system and the Auxiliary Power Units at the orbiter test-firing stand,

located in open air right next to the MIK OK. On the whole, the tests, conducted between 25 April and 9 May, produced satisfactory results. During the two weeks that Buran spent outdoors, several communication tests were carried out between the orbiter and Mission Control in Kaliningrad near Moscow using relay satellites.


The goals outlined for Buran in the original February 1976 government and party decree were primarily military in nature, although civilian satellite deployment and retrieval missions as well as space station servicing missions were seen as additional objectives (see Chapter 2). At any rate, unlike the Space Shuttle in the US, Buran was not supposed to replace the entire expendable launch vehicle fleet, but merely complement that fleet by flying missions that it was uniquely designed to perform. However, strange as it may seem, all indications are that the primary emphasis throughout the history of the program was on the development of the rocket and orbiter themselves, not so much on the type of missions they would eventually fulfill. The Russians were so blindly focused on building a system matching the capabilities of the Space Shuttle that this became almost a goal in itself.

This is not to say that no thought was given to payloads at all. Specific orders to design payloads and work out flight programs for the Soviet orbiter came in party and government decrees issued in December 1981, August 1985, and August 1987. In 1981-1982 the military space R&D institute TsNII-50 conducted studies of possible military uses of Buran until 1995 under the name “Complex”. In January 1984 the Ministry of Defense, MOM, and the Academy of Sciences jointly approved a program of Buran missions until the year 1995, and a concrete program of Buran operations up until 2000 seems to have been included in the earlier mentioned government/party decree of June 1989. Unfortunately, details of all those decrees and studies remain classified.

What is known is that all the major Soviet space design bureaus were asked to come up with ideas: NPO Energiya in Kaliningrad (manned spacecraft), NPO Mashinostroyeniya in Reutov (manned spacecraft, military satellites), KB Salyut in Fili (manned spacecraft, space combat means), KB Yuzhnoye in Dnepropetrovsk (military/scientific satellites), TsSKB in Kuybyshev (photoreconnaissance, remote sensing, materials-processing spacecraft), NPO Lavochkin in Moscow (deep-space probes and early-warning satellites), and NPO PM in Krasnoyarsk (communications and navigation satellites). The chief designers of those organizations were asked to take into account not only the significant payload capacity of the Soviet orbiter, but also its ability to repair satellites in orbit and return them back to Earth.

Despite the repeated calls to formulate ideas for Buran payloads, the response was meager. Presumably, all the new satellites being designed at those organizations could easily be accommodated by existing launch vehicles, and their chief designers must have felt as if they were asked to invent payloads to fit a space transportation system with which they had little affinity. It also made little sense to launch existing satellites on Buran, because (unlike the Space Shuttle) the intention of the Buran program had never been to replace the expendable launch vehicle fleet. Moreover, there had always been a tradition in the Soviet space industry that the design bureaus that developed rockets also needed to design payloads tailored to fly on those rockets. As far as the chief designers were concerned, Buran would be no exception and it was up to NPO Energiya to think up missions for its shuttle system.

Another factor that probably discouraged the satellite chief designers from becoming involved in Buran was that there was little confidence that the Soviet shuttle would ever fly. Already made wary by the N-1 debacle, they became even more skeptical when the RD-170 development problems brought the Energiya – Buran program to the verge of collapse in the early 1980s, and the original 1983 launch date kept slipping ever further. It wasn’t really until the first missions of the Zenit rocket in 1985 and, ultimately, the first flight of Energiya in 1987 that the program to many became a credible undertaking, but by that time the political constellation that would eventually lead to its downfall was already beginning to take shape [29].

The result of all this was that Buran was never seriously considered for routine satellite deployment missions. NPO Energiya’s predecessor OKB-1 had moved out of satellite construction back in the early 1960s, farming out the development of communications satellites, photoreconnaissance satellites, and deep-space probes to other organizations. Instead, Buran’s primary mission would be to support NPO Energiya’s core business—namely, space station operations. Unlike the situation in the US, where the Space Shuttle had to wait until the mid-1990s to perform its originally planned role of a space station ferry, the Russians had space stations readily available from the outset. Most of the missions that were seriously planned beyond the first flight were related either to Mir or its planned successor Mir-2, with the primary payload (the 37KB modules) being developed by KB Salyut, a branch of NPO Energiya between 1981 and 1988.

While military missions were expected to become Buran’s main goal, few such missions have ever been identified. Ironically, by the time Buran was ready to fly, the Pentagon was withdrawing from the Shuttle program in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, reorienting its heavy payloads to unmanned rockets.

In the end, the relative dearth of payloads and missions backfired on the program as the Soviet empire collapsed and became one of the main arguments to justify its cancellation.

The Buran/Mir/Soyuz mission

The only other Buran mission that ever came close to flying was 2K1, in which vehicle 2K would have been launched unmanned to the Mir complex, and after undocking would have been briefly boarded by a Soyuz crew before returning to Earth unmanned. This mission, along with crew assignments, has been described in detail in Chapter 5.