Category Energiya-Buran

Moving towards approval

Whatever the motives, by the middle of 1975 a number of joint meetings between officials of the Ministry of General Machine Building and the Ministry of Defense resulted in a Soviet shuttle taking center stage in future plans for the country’s piloted space program. There seems to have been particular pressure from GUKOS, headed at the time by Andrey Karas. The consensus by now was also that the vehicle should be similar in size to the Space Shuttle in order to respond to whatever threat the

American vehicle would eventually pose. It was also felt that the time needed to develop a big or small shuttle wouldn’t be too different anyway.

From an economic and operational viewpoint, there was clearly no immediate need for the Soviet Union to build a shuttle, but in times of almost limitless budgets for defense-related programs any such considerations were easily outweighed by military arguments. Still, there was much division in the industry, mainly within NPO Energiya, on the need to press ahead. Therefore, GUKOS ordered the TsNII-50 research institute to perform a study of the military potential of such a system. Strangely enough, TsNII-50 head Gennadiy Melnikov, wishing to satisfy both camps, ordered preparation of two reports, one confirming the need to build a Shuttle equivalent, and the other demonstrating there was no need for such a system. The negative report was sent to the opponents of the reusable spacecraft and the positive report to the proponents. Eventually, however, both reports landed on the desk of Dmitriy Ustinov, who was dismayed to learn that two contradictory reports had been prepared by one and the same institute. Ustinov subsequently summoned Glushko to his office to clarify the situation, but Glushko, still not enthusiastic about a shuttle program, instead decided to send Valeriy Burdakov.

Burdakov, an avid shuttle supporter, had headed the shuttle team under Mishin, but after Glushko’s arrival had been demoted to a position under shuttle chief designer Sadovskiy. Glushko’s decision not to go himself and not even send Sadovskiy was his way of showing his lack of interest in the program, but it apparently had a boomerang effect. Burdakov and Ustinov talked at length about reusable spacecraft, with Ustinov showing particular interest in the military applica­tions of such systems. Asked about the goals of the US Space Shuttle, Burdakov told Ustinov among other things about its capability to place giant laser complexes into orbit. The two agreed that much of the N-l infrastructure at Baykonur (mainly the giant N-l assembly building and the two launch pads) could be modified for use by a reusable spacecraft. The conversation ended with Ustinov ordering Sadovskiy’s department to draw up a detailed report outlining the possible designs, missions, and operational aspects of a Soviet reusable space system [21].

Given Ustinov’s influence, this order was more than a trivial matter and a considerable step on the road to final approval of a Soviet shuttle system. In


Dmitriy Ustinov.

September 1975 Ustinov convened a meeting at NPO Energiya, where it was agreed to speed up the release of a government and party decree on such a system, seen as the official endorsement of the program and the go-ahead to actually design and build the hardware [22]. In a letter dated 21 December 1975, KGB chief Yuriy Andropov once again reminded Ustinov of the Space Shuttle’s military capabilities, emphasizing that its 30-ton payload capacity allowed it to orbit big spy satellites and space-to – ground weapons [23]. Roald Sagdeyev confirms Ustinov’s role in the final decision to build a Space Shuttle equivalent:

“I heard that [Buran] was adopted mainly due to insistence from Ustinov, who had made the following argument: if our scientists and engineers do not see any specific use of this technology now, we should not forget that the Americans are very pragmatic and very smart. Since they have invested a tremendous amount of money in such a project, they can obviously see some useful scenarios that are still unseen from Soviet eyes. The Soviet Union should develop such a technol­ogy, so that it won’t be taken by surprise in the future’’ [24].


The unavoidable impression one gets when comparing drawings and pictures of the Space Shuttle and Energiya-Buran is that the Soviet vehicle is in many ways a copy of the American one. There were of course basic differences with the Space Shuttle, the most notable ones being the use of liquid vs. solid-fuel boosters, the placement of the cryogenic engines on the external tank rather than the orbiter, the use of cryogenic rather than hypergolic propellants for the orbiter’s orbital maneuvering and reaction control systems and Buran’s higher degree of automation.

However, there is no denying the fact that other differences between the two systems were in details rather than in fundamental design. The similarities far out­numbered the differences. The tank section of the core stage was a virtual carbon copy of the Shuttle’s External Tank and the orbiter was almost identical in layout, dimensions, and shape to its US counterpart. The similar dimensions were a logical result of the requirement to match the payload capacity of the Space Shuttle. As for the strikingly similar shape, when asked about this, Soviet officials usually responded along the lines that the laws of aerodynamics left little room for other designs. However, the dozens of orbiter outlines studied by NASA in the late 1960s and early 1970s and by the Russians themselves disprove this claim. In the end, Buran’s shape was largely determined by the very same Defense Department requirements that


Space Shuttle and Energiya-Buran compared (source: www. buran. ru).

had forced NASA into the design for its Space Shuttle Orbiter (high cross-range capability and ability to transport large payloads). As one veteran admits:

“The deciding factor was not aerodynamics. We were in a position of having to play catch-up [with the Americans] … This is where the, unfortunately, classical opinion in our defense industry surfaced: the Americans aren’t dumber, do it the way they do!’’ [72].

Indeed, Buran was not the only example of following Western designs. Similar examples can be found in other branches of the Soviet industry as well, particularly in aviation. Among the more striking ones were the Tu-4 bomber, a clone of the B-29, and the Tu-144 “Konkordski”, the Soviet equivalent of Concorde. In some instances this was simply the fastest and most practical way of achieving parity, with the Russians apparently being not all too concerned about losing face in the process.

It should be pointed out though that Buran was the only obvious case of copying in the Soviet space program. While several Soviet manned and unmanned space projects were a response to American programs and intended to match their cap­abilities, the Russians usually came up with their own design solutions (e. g., Spiral vs. Dyna Soar and Almaz vs. the Manned Orbiting Laboratory). In the N-1/L-3 manned lunar-landing project, a program comparable in scale with Energiya-Buran, the Russians adopted the same Lunar Orbit Rendezvous technique as the Americans, but built a rocket that was fundamentally different from the Saturn V. Perhaps the negative experience with that project was one of the reasons that led them to more closely mimic the US design when the next program of comparable proportions came along. If things went wrong again, managers and designers would at least not be held accountable for “having done it differently than the Americans”.

More fundamentally though, this time around the Russians were not sure what the ultimate objectives of the American program where. Whereas the goal of Apollo unequivocally had been to put a man on the Moon, the motives behind the devel­opment of the Space Shuttle were much more nebulous from the Russian perspective. Fearing the military capabilities of the Shuttle, they felt it necessary to build an equivalent system, but, unsure of what exactly the threat was, they had little choice but to stick closely to the American design to make sure they would be able to respond to whatever strategic missions the Shuttle would eventually perform. Buran was built not out of some fundamental need in the Soviet space program, but as an answer to potential military and other applications of the Space Shuttle. This would eventually become the root cause of its downfall in the early 1990s.

By copying many aspects of the Space Shuttle design, the Russians could take advantage of the American experience, saving them a lot of research and develop­ment time. Although there is little evidence to support this, there can be little doubt that in designing their vehicle the Russians made use of the literature openly available on the Space Shuttle Orbiter. By the time the Energiya-Buran project got underway in 1976, the Shuttle’s design had been frozen for nearly two years and the first Orbiters were under construction. On the other hand, there is probably nothing fundamental that the Russians changed in their design based on actual US flight experience, because by the time Columbia flew STS-1 in April 1981 Buran’s own design had been finalized.

Still, the copying that irrefutably took place should not be used as an argument to belittle the Soviet accomplishment. No matter how much the Russians relied on Shuttle literature and blueprints, they still needed to develop the technology, the materials, and the infrastructure and do the testing all by themselves. Considering their overall less mature state of technology and the country’s smaller economic

potential, this was a remarkable feat, irrespective of whether the expenditures were justified or not.

Mid-deck (“Habitation Compartment” or BO)

For ascent and return the mid-deck could have seats installed for up to six crew members. In orbit it served as the living and sleeping quarters for the crew, containing (among other things) lockers for stowage, sleeping bags, a galley with a small reclining table, washing facilities, and a toilet. In the aft of the mid-deck there was room for an internal airlock to conduct spacewalks during non-docking missions. For docking missions Buran would have carried a combined docking system/airlock installed in the cargo bay just behind the crew compartment.

The mid-deck also housed three small equipment bays with radio equipment and thermal control systems that could be accessed by the crew via panels. There was a

Buran’s cockpit for maiden flight (source: Yuriy Semyonov/Mashinostroyeniye).

hatch on the port side of the mid-deck for normal crew ingress and egress, which could be opened very quickly by the crew in emergency situations. As on the Orbiter, there was a small porthole in the middle of the side hatch. Access to the flight deck was via two interdeck openings (left and right), although only the left one was supposed to be used in flight. The mid-deck had its own instrument panel (17M212) with among other things an on-board clock and an emergency warning system. There were also separate instrument panels for the airlock (17M213) and the docking adapter (17M214).

Radio Beacon Landing System (RMS)

This was the prime navigation aid for final approach and landing, providing azimuth and elevation data from an altitude of about 7 km. The RMS was a standard all­weather scanning-beam microwave landing system (MLS) similar to those adopted for civil aircraft in the early 1980s by the International Civil Aviation Organization. In microwave landing systems antennas located on the ground transmit a reciprocat­ing beam to an aircraft, while the aircraft measures the interval between a pair of received beams and thereby determines the azimuth and elevation angle. Buran was equipped with three RMS sets (17M901) each containing a transmitter/receiver and a decoder (34.5 kg). The ground-based component incorporated an azimuth and elevation antenna on either side of the runway, providing azimuth coverage of about 30 degrees from the runway centerline and vertical guidance up to 30 degrees. The antennas had a much greater range (at least 25 km) than traditional aviation micro­wave landing systems.

The RMS was very similar to the Space Shuttle’s Microwave Scan Beam Landing System (MSBLS). VNIIRA (the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Radio Equipment), the Leningrad institute that built the system, was criticized by some for not using an advanced aviation microwave landing system called Platsdarm. This was under development at the institute by the end of the 1970s and featured phased-array

Location of navigation equipment in the landing area (reproduced from Aviation Week & Space Technology).

antennas with electronic scanning rather than dish antennas with mechanical scanning as in the RMS. Some felt that the simultaneous work on the Buran system and Platsdarm was a wasteful duplication of effort.

Military level

The main military organization involved in the Energiya-Buran program was GUKOS (Chief Directorate of Space Assets), which during the early years of the program was subordinate to the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN). RVSN had been set up as an independent branch of the armed forces in December 1959 to run the burgeoning strategic missile program, a task earlier performed by the Chief Artillery Directorate (GAU) under the Ministry of Defense. All this was in contrast to the situation in the United States, where missiles were the responsibility of the Air Force. RVSN also inherited the space-related functions of the GAU—namely, pre-launch processing, launch, tracking, and control of both civilian and military satellites. In 1964 RVSN further consolidated its control over space operations with the creation of TsUKOS (Central Directorate of Space Assets), a body that was directly subordinate to the RVSN Commander-in-Chief. In March 1970 TsUKOS was re­organized as GUKOS, which in turn separated from RVSN in November 1981 to become directly subordinate to Defense Minister Ustinov. In November 1986 it was reorganized as a separate branch of the armed forces under the name UNKS (Directorate of the Commander of Space Forces).

In August 1992, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it became known as VKS (Military Space Forces). In November 1997 VKS was reabsorbed by the Strategic Rocket Forces, only to be given back its independent status in June 2001 under the name KV (Space Troops).

GUKOS was appointed as the so-called “client” for the Energiya-Buran pro­gram on 30 July 1976. This meant that, formally at least, it was responsible for determining the specifications for the system. In this respect, it essentially assumed the same position as NASA in the United States, with the design bureaus and factories playing the role of “contractors”. In principle, however, most of the initiatives to develop new spacecraft or work out specifications came from the design bureaus themselves in a bottom-up management style characteristic of the Soviet space program. The relationship between “client” and “contractor” in the Soviet context was also different in that GUKOS did not directly control the purse strings of the Energiya-Buran program. Like most other space projects, the program had to be run with the annual funds allocated to the ministries of the military industrial complex from the state budget, which was a way of covering up actual defense expenditures. Aside from fulfilling its “client” function, GUKOS/UNKS was in charge of operating the launch facilities at the Baykonur cosmodrome and tracking stations across the Soviet Union.

GUKOS/UNKS commanders during the Buran years were Andrey G. Karas (1965-1979), Aleksandr A. Maksimov (1979-1989), and Vladimir L. Ivanov (1989­1996). Several bodies and posts were set up within GUKOS that were specifically related to the Energiya-Buran program. In December 1979 a special coordinating group overseeing work on the program was set up under the leadership of former cosmonaut Gherman Titov, a deputy head of GUKOS at the time. In 1984 Yevgeniy I. Panchenko was named deputy head of GUKOS specifically in charge of Energiya – Buran and “automated control systems”. In 1986 a new 4th Directorate in charge of Buran and “special space assets” was established under the leadership of Nikolay E. Dmitriyev. Military R&D work on the Energiya-Buran program was conducted by the Strategic Rocket Forces’ TsNII-50 research institute, which became directly subordinate to GUKOS in 1982. It was headed by Gennadiy P. Melnikov (1972­1983), Ivan V. Meshcheryakov (1983-1988), and Eduard V. Alekseyev (1988-1992).

Despite repeated attempts by the Air Force to loosen the Strategic Rocket Forces’ stranglehold on the space program, its space-related responsibilities remained largely limited to cosmonaut training. For the Buran project the Air Force trained its own team of test pilots based at the Chkalov State Red Banner Scientific Test Institute (GKNII) in Akhtubinsk.

Energiya-Buran launch pads

Known as Raskat (“peal of thunder”) or 11P825, the Energiya-Buran launch complex consisted of two adjacent pads: pad 37, the “left” pad as seen from the Energiya-Buran Technical Zone, and pad 38, the “right” pad. The pads were situated some 5 km from the Technical Zone. Separated by only a few dozen meters, they were

Energiya being erected inside the Dynamic Test Stand (source: www. buran. ru).

built on the same site where the two N-1 pads had been built in the 1960s. This decision had not been taken lightly. Many argued the Energiya-Buran pads should be built farther from the Technical Zone, because the cataclysmic on-the-pad explosion of the second N-1 rocket in July 1969 had actually caused damage to the N-1 assembly building. Furthermore, the Energiya-Buran pads required totally new systems such as hydrogen storage tanks and crew emergency escape systems. Although building the pads on the old N-1 complex was not necessarily cheaper or simpler than other options, Vladimir P. Barmin, the head of launch pad design bureau KBOM (Design Bureau of General Machine Building), insisted on maintain­ing at least some of the colossal work invested in the lunar program.

The N-1 pads consisted of three 23 m deep flame trenches, five-story under­ground support facilities and a 145 m high rotating service structure. While the underground support facilities had to be almost completely rebuilt, the flame trenches remained largely unchanged, although a new flame deflection system had to be built to make their three-directional design compatible with Energiya’s asymmetrically configured propulsion system. Engineers designed a new 1,200-ton heavy launch table compatible with the Blok-Ya mating unit on which Energiya-Buran was mounted.

The N-1’s 145 m high rotating service structure remained in place on both pads. Newly installed on the structure were several sets of support arms that embraced the stack for final launch preparations. A lower set interfaced with Buran’s mid fuselage and was therefore probably mainly used for fuel cell servicing. Two higher sets of support arms provided electric and other interfaces with the rocket and were used to inspect the rocket’s thermal insulation layers.

At some point the rotating service towers on both pads were shortened to about 60 m. This was reportedly done to minimize the chance of the rocket’s flames impinging on the tower after lift-off, even though it was at a relatively safe distance in parked position. Since Buran faced the rotating service tower while it sat on the pad, the move may also have been related to the possible use of Buran’s ejection seats in the event of an on-the-pad emergency. Although the ejection seats would have lifted the pilots well over the tower (to an altitude of about 500 m), the shortening may have provided an extra margin of safety. At the time of Buran’s launch in November 1988, the rotating service structure of pad 37 still had its original height, while that of the (unused) pad 38 had already been shortened.

Flanking the Energiya-Buran stack on either side were two newly erected 64 m high fixed service structures. One of these contained the propellant lines for tanking or detanking of the core stage and strap-on boosters. There were at least three arms connecting it to the rocket. One of the arms was retracted from the rocket only at lift-off to ensure that no hydrogen escaped into the surrounding air, forming a potentially explosive mixture.

The other fixed tower had two arms. One was an arm connected to Energiya’s intertank section that contained instruments necessary to correct the rocket’s azimuthal orientation gyroscopes. It was retracted with less than a minute left in the countdown. The other was an access arm linking the tower with Buran’s crew compartment. Running from the access arm were two pipes leading to two separate

Pad 37 with the 145 m high rotating service structure in place (source: www. buran. ru).

Pad 37 with shortened rotating service structure (B. Vis).

underground rooms. To board the orbiter, the crew or launch pad personnel rode on special trolleys inside the top pipe. The trolleys could accommodate about a dozen people. The lower pipe was a giant escape chute to be used by the crew or personnel in the event of an emergency, with a special mattress in the underground room softening their landing. Once there, they would have hermetically sealed themselves in an adjacent blast room where they should have been safe from explosions, leaks, and the like. A special test stand imitating the chute was built in 1986 at the Scientific Research Institute of Chemical and Building Machines (NIIKhSM) in Zagorsk, north of Moscow. The chute at the pad was tested numerous times by engineers. It was reportedly also a favorite playground for off-duty soldiers in the evening hours, as evidenced by the numerous boot imprints on the mattresses.

Soviet engineers may have been inspired by an escape system used at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 during the Apollo years. This would have seen crews riding high-speed elevators to Level A of the mobile launch platform, where they would have jumped into a slide tube that would carry them under the launch pad. The slide terminated in a padded “rubber room’’ which was connected by a massive steel door to a blast room, which could withstand an on-the-pad explosion of
the Saturn V launch vehicle. After the Apollo program the slide tube was capped off, although the rooms remain deep down under the pad, serving as “time capsules” of the Apollo program. For the Shuttle program, slide-wire baskets were installed on the fixed service structure at the level of the Orbiter access arm, taking crews down to seek shelter in a nearby bunker or escape from the pad in a small armored vehicle.

Surrounding the pads were four large floodlight towers and two 225 m high lightning protection towers that also supported floodlights. Rust-colored reservoirs containing sound suppression water were located on either side of the fixed towers. During launch huge pipes channeled the water to spray nozzles that sent thousands of liters of water onto the pad during launch.

Just as for their other launch vehicles, the Soviets had a policy of limited pad time for Energiya-Buran, dictated at least partially by the harsh climatic conditions at the cosmodrome, especially during winter. With most hazardous operations and close­out activities performed inside the MZK, the vehicle was in a high state of readiness when it arrived on the pad. Buran was rolled out from the MZK to the pad just 19 days before its first launch attempt on 29 October 1988.

The main hazardous operations remaining to be completed on the pad were the loading of cryogenic propellants into Buran’s fuel cells and the ODU propulsion system, and tanking of the core stage and strap-on boosters. A so-called “cryogenic center’’ serving both pads was built to the north of the launch complex and had huge spherical storage tanks containing liquid oxygen and hydrogen as well as gaseous nitrogen and helium. Fueling of the Energiya rocket was completely automated, with nobody allowed within a 5 km radius of the pad. Unlike the Shuttle pads at the Kennedy Space Center, the Buran pads had no provisions for loading payloads into the cargo bay.

The pad used for the one and only Buran launch on 15 November 1988 was nr. 37. Pad 38, although apparently finished, never hosted an Energiya-Buran stack. It can be distinguished from the used pad by white markings on the fixed and rotating service structures [14].

The Soyuz mission of Anatoliy Levchenko

Having flown Soyuz T-12, Igor Volk now had the spaceflight experience necessary to command the first manned mission of Buran. Next in line for a Soyuz mission was Anatoliy Levchenko, scheduled to be Volk’s back-up for the Buran flight. Levchenko began intensive training for his mission in March 1987. Two months later he was joined by his crewmates Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov, who were slated to fly a
record-breaking one-year mission as the third Main Expedition (EO-3) aboard the new Mir space station. Levchenko would go up with Titov and Manarov on Soyuz TM-4 in December 1987 and after a short period of handover activities would land with the EO-2 crew aboard Soyuz TM-3.

Crewing for the mission was:

(Kaleri had replaced the original back-up flight engineer Sergey Yemelyanov, who was medically disqualified in May 1987 and would die of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of just 41.)

In keeping with the new policy of glasnost that was developing in the Soviet Union under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov, the names of the crew members were announced to the public prior to the mission, on 9 December. The press was also told that both Levchenko and Shchukin were test pilots, although no explanation was initially given for their assignment. In an interview two days before launch, the chairman of the State Commission Lieutenant-General Kerim Kerimov was asked to describe the role of the test pilots in the Soyuz passenger seat. Although he revealed that the inclusion of both Volk and Levchenko was at the request of MAP, he didn’t elaborate on the reasons to send them into space. All he said was that Levchenko’s flight would last a week and that he thought “that period presumably would be

Anatoliy Levchenko relaxes during his stay on the Mir station (B. Vis files).

sufficient for the comrades who were sending him there to establish his qualities as a test pilot working in space” [63].

However, in this new era of openness journalists no longer would accept such a non-answer. The next day Vladimir Shatalov, asked directly what the reason for Levchenko’s presence in the crew was, said that new systems were being developed, including reusable ones that would land like an airplane. Landing such spacecraft called for completely new techniques and it was necessary to investigate the tech­nology of piloting these spacecraft to a safe landing [64]. The Soviet Union had already officially acknowledged that it was working on a reusable spacecraft on the eve of the maiden launch of the Energiya rocket in May 1987.

The following day, 21 December 1987, Soyuz TM-4 lifted off from Baykonur and reached orbit without problems. After a two-day flight, the Soyuz docked with the Mir space station, where Titov, Manarov, and Levchenko were greeted by the resident crew of Yuriy Romanenko and Aleksandr Aleksandrov. That same day Radio Moscow finally confirmed what had been obvious all along, saying “Levchenko has been sent on this mission to try out in zero gravity his skills for the future piloting of a shuttle spacecraft’’ [65]. For the next seven days Romanenko and Aleksandrov handed over the complex to the new expedition crew. Besides this, a joint program was conducted, although few details were given other than that it consisted of “scientific, technical, medical and biological experiments” [66].

After the handover operations had been completed, Romanenko, Aleksandrov, and Levchenko said their goodbyes to Titov and Manarov on 29 December and landed aboard Soyuz TM-3 some 80 kilometers from Arkalyk in Kazakhstan. Levchenko’s flight had lasted 7 days 21 hours 58 minutes. It was reported that winds at the landing site were so strong that it was difficult to set up the tent for the first medical check-ups, forcing the crew to be directly evacuated to the nearby helicopter of the medical staff [67]. Anatoliy Levchenko, supported by two men, was brought to a separate helicopter and within half an hour after landing was on his way to the airport of Arkalyk. In a repeat of Volk’s experiment, he boarded a Tupolev Tu – 154LL, flew it to LII in Zhukovskiy near Moscow, and then returned to the Baykonur cosmodrome on a MiG-25, performing Buran-landing profiles to test his flying abilities after more than a week in zero gravity.


When the idea to launch 6S on a shakedown flight emerged in 1985, the question also arose as to what payload to strap to the side of the rocket. An early suggestion was to fly an empty steel canister (4 m in diameter and 25 m long) which would remain attached to Energiya’s core stage and re-enter together with it. This would have required no modifications to the UKSS to service the payload. However, the Ministry of General Machine Building insisted on flying some kind of operational payload on 6SL. In the summer of 1985 the choice fell on an existing design for a nearly 100-ton spacecraft to test laser weapons in space.

The history of this project can be traced back to 1976, when NPO Energiya was tasked to start research on various types of “Star Wars’’ technology. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time that the Energiya-Buran program was initiated. The research, which essentially was a violation of the 1972 Soviet – American Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, covered three broad areas: anti-satellite missions, space-based anti-ballistic missile defense, and destruction of high-priority air, sea, and land-based targets using space-based assets. Early anti-satellite efforts at NPO Energiya focused on two types of Salyut-derived “battle stations’’, initially to be launched by Proton and later in the cargo bay of Buran. One of these (Skif or “Scythian”) (17F19) was to use laser weapons to destroy low-orbiting satellites, the other (Kaskad or “Cascade”) (17F111) missiles to destroy satellites in medium and geostationary orbits.

Because of the heavy workload at NPO Energiya, the Skif and Kaskad projects were transferred in 1981 to the Salyut Design Bureau (KB Salyut) in the Moscow suburb of Fili, which during that year had become a branch of NPO Energiya after having split off from the rival Chelomey design bureau. For the laser project KB Salyut came up with an entirely new design—namely, a 40 m long 95-ton object that was to be built at the Khrunichev factory and launched by Energiya. The engine section would be a modified Functional Cargo Block (FGB), the main part of the Transport Supply Ships (TKS) originally designed by KB Salyut to transport crews and cargo to Chelomey’s Almaz military space stations, but eventually flown as heavy cargo ships to the Salyut-6 and Salyut-7 space stations.

The ultimate goal was to develop a whole series of Skif battle stations with various types of laser installations. One of these was an infrared laser system called Stilet (“Stiletto”). Developed by NPO Astrofizika, this was intended to knock out the optical systems of enemy satellites, thereby rendering them useless. However, development of these laser systems ran into delays because it was difficult to keep them within the required mass limits. Spurred on by President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in March 1983, the Soviet military decided to develop an interim demonstration version (Skif-D) equipped with a much lighter, 1 MWt carbon dioxide gas laser built at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy that was already undergoing tests on a modified Ilyushin-76MD aircraft. The plan was to fly Skif-D1 with various auxiliary systems but without the laser itself and fly Skif-D2 with the laser system and use that to knock out small targets deployed from the vehicle itself. The main focus of the Soviet “Star Wars’’ program by now was not anti-missile defense, but to counter SDI by developing a capability to disable the planned American SDI battle stations. This would deprive the US of its missile shield and enable the Soviet Union to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

When the opportunity arose to mount a payload on Energiya 6SL, Baklanov ordered KB Salyut in July 1985 to build a mock-up version of Skif-D called Skif-DM (“M” standing for maket or “dummy”). The initial idea was just to build a mock-up of Skif-D filled with sand or water and keep that attached to Energiya or separate it from the rocket for subsequent re-entry. The next suggestion was to place it into orbit for a week-long mission, requiring the inclusion of an FGB assist module and a set of batteries. Finally, Baklanov insisted on a month-long mission to demonstrate some of the capabilities of Skif-D, with the final order coming on 19 August 1985. The hope was to fly Skif-DM (serial nr. 18201) on Energiya 6SL in September 1986, followed by Skif-D1 (18101) in June 1987 and Skif-D2 (18301) in 1988.

In its final design, Skif-DM was actually quite similar to the Skif-D1 demon­stration vehicle, equipped with various auxiliary systems needed to operate a space-based laser, but not carrying the laser itself (contrary to many rumors in the West). The spacecraft was 36.9 m long, had a maximum diameter of 4.1 m and a mass of 77 tons. It consisted of a modified FGB section called FSB (Functional Service Block) and a Payload Module (TsM). The FSB was an available FGB section that had originally been planned to act as a space tug for a now canceled Mir module. It contained all the housekeeping equipment that could not be exposed to the vacuum of space and the engines needed for orbit insertion and attitude control. Mounted on the outside of the FSB were two solar panels. Skif’s FSB section was protected during the early stages of launch by a newly developed fiberglass payload shroud, which had to be jettisoned such that it would not hit Skif or the Energiya rocket.

The Payload Module was made up of a Gas Compartment (ORT), an Energy Compartment (OE), and a Special Equipment Compartment (OSA). In the final Skif-D design, the ORT was to house canisters with carbon dioxide to feed the laser, but in order not to arouse suspicion in the West, the canisters on Skif-DM (42 in all) were filled with xenon and krypton instead. The gases would be released into space and their interaction with the ionosphere could then be explained as a geophysical experiment. The OE was intended to carry two 1.2 watt electric turbogenerators, but since these would not be ready in time for the Skif-DM launch, this compartment was virtually empty. It did have a special exhaust system using gas vanes that would make it possible to release the xenon and krypton without imparting momentum to the spacecraft. The OSA did not have the carbon dioxide laser system, but did carry the acquisition, tracking, and pointing mechanisms needed to find targets and keep the laser pointed at them. This included a radar system for rough pointing and a small low-energy laser for fine pointing. The pointing mechanism was supposed to be mounted on a rotatable platform, but this was not ready for Skif-DM either. The data were processed by an Argon-16 computer similar to the one flown on the Mir space station.

In order to calibrate the sensors of the acquisition, tracking, and pointing system, Skif-DM carried 34 small targets (both inflatable balloons and angled reflectors) that would be released from two small modules almost resembling strap-on boosters attached to either side of the OSA. Fourteen of the inflatable balloons would release barium to simulate the exhaust trails from ballistic missiles and spacecraft. Officially, the deployment of the targets would be explained as a test of an experimental approach and docking system and the release of the barium as a geophysical experiment to study the interaction of plasma with the ionosphere.

Skif-DM also carried four technological and six geophysical experiments not directly related to Skif-D. The technological experiments (VP-1, VP-2, VP-3, and VP-11) were aimed at studying techniques for launching and operating large-size spacecraft. One set of geophysical experiments (Mirazh-1, Mirazh-2, and Mirazh-3) was designed to study the interaction of rocket combustion products with the upper atmosphere and ionosphere during launch and deorbit. Another set (GF-1/1, GF-1/2, and GF-1/3) studied the interaction of artificial gas and plasma formations with ionospheric plasma during operation of the FSB engines. Observations of the geophysical experiments were to be conducted from the ground, sea, and air.

Since the Payload Module contained relatively few operating instruments, temperatures inside could drop to unacceptably low levels, which is why the outer surface was painted black to ensure maximum absorption of solar heat. Painted on the side was the name Polyus (“Pole”), which is apparently how the vehicle was supposed to be announced to the world after launch. After the Payload Module’s

The Skif-DM/Polyus spacecraft: 1, FSB engine section; 2, FSB instrument and payload section; 3, Gas Compartment; 4, Energy Compartment; 5, Special Equipment Compartment; 6, payload shroud; 7, FSB solar panels; 8, gas canisters; 9, momentless exhaust system; 10, acquisition, tracking, and pointing system; 11, bottom view of Skif-DM showing the two modules stowed full with targets (source: Zemlya i vselennaya).

arrival at the Baykonur cosmodrome, KB Salyut engineers also painted the name “Mir-2” on its front section. This was part of a cover story for the mission in which the TASS news agency would describe it as a prototype space station module. There was even some truth to it, because plans at the time did indeed call for the Mir-2 space station to be made up of massive modules to be launched by Energiya. There were two competing designs for such modules within NPO Energiya, one put forward by the central design bureau in Kaliningrad and the other by the KB Salyut branch in Fili. With the latter based on the Skif-D/FSB design, the Skif-DM mission would have provided valuable data for the KB Salyut space station design had it ever been selected.

PREPARING FOR THE MISSION First orbiter roll-outs

After the Energiya pad fueling tests and core stage test firings in 1985-1986, the focus shifted to pad tests of the entire Energiya-Buran system. For this purpose the Russians used two full-scale mock-ups of Buran called OK-ML1 and OK-MT, delivered to the cosmodrome by VM-T carrier aircraft in December 1983 and August 1984. The work began in January-February 1986 when OK-ML1 was mated with the 4M core stage (a stack known as 4MP1) for a series of tests at the Assembly and Fueling Facility (MZK). Several weeks later 4M was united with OK-MT (a stack called 4MP or 11F36P) for more tests at the MZK from 13 to 16 May.

After roll-back to the Energiya assembly building, 4M was reconfigured for a series of fueling and dynamic tests with the OK-ML1 vehicle on both the UKSS and Energiya-Buran pad 37. Both the core stage and strap-on boosters were loaded with simulated propellants. The dynamic tests were necessary because the huge Dynamic Test Stand was still under construction and saw the use of small solid-fuel rockets on the core stage to create vibrations. Dubbed 4MKS-D, the stack spent two weeks on the UKSS (13-28 August 1986) and over a month on pad 37 (29 August-4 October 1986) [35]. This was the first time ever that an Energiya-Buran combination had spent time on the pad.

Next up was the 4MP/11F36P stack with the OK-MT vehicle for various loading tests of the orbiter both in the MZK and on launch pad 37. The combination was

rolled out to the pad on 5 May 1987 and shown to General Secretary Gorbachov during his visit to the cosmodrome in mid-May. 4MP returned to the MZK on 14 May, one day prior to the launch of Energiya 6SL, to make sure that it wouldn’t be damaged in case the Energiya blew up during lift-off. Afterwards, it spent one more month on the pad (28 May-29 June 1987) to complete the tests. Similar tests with the 4MP stack were conducted on pad 37 in October-November 1987. After that, the flight hardware for the first Energiya-Buran mission was ready to make its appearance on the pad.


Later that year, RKA, the Ministry of Defense, the Academy of Sciences, and several other organizations drew up a “State Space Program up to the Year 2000’’, which did not include any plans for continued use of Buran [16]. This was a clear sign that, as far as RKA was concerned, Buran had no place in the new political and economical environment following the collapse of the USSR. In fact, some sources say the agency decided that same year to cancel further work on Buran [17]. The only more or less optimistic statements on the future of Buran in 1992 came from NPO Energiya officials themselves. Early in the year Vladimir Nikitskiy, Energiya’s director of international affairs, said funding for Buran was being maintained on a low level and that the program had not yet been canceled outright, although it would be expensive to keep the already built orbiters in flyable storage [18]. In the summer Semyonov said nearly 4 billion rubles would be directed to continuation of the program. He noted, however, that the launch complex needed to be restored because no routine inspection and maintenance work had been done on it for nearly a year and a half. Semyonov held out hope that the 2K1 mission would fly in 1993 [19].

It appears Semyonov’s words were no more than wishful thinking. As the months progressed, it was becoming ever clearer that the program was in its death throes. In May 1993 the Council of Chief Designers issued the following statement, which confirmed what had been obvious all along:

“The two successful launches of the Energiya rocket… have confirmed the correctness of the design decisions and the reliability of all elements of this new rocket and space system, unmatched in its capabilities by anything in the world. Taking into consideration that the government is not in a position not only to ensure the continuation of work, but also to take measures to maintain the cooperation between the designers and the acquired scientific and technical potential, the Council of Chief Designers is forced to conclude with deep regret that further work on the orbital vehicle Buran and the Energiya rocket carrier, [once] destined to provide our country a leading position in the exploration of space, is not considered possible’’ [20].

This statement is the closest that the Russians ever came to officially announcing the end of Energiya-Buran. There was no single day when the program was canceled.

Since the project had been sanctioned by a government and Communist Party decree in 1976, the only way to officially terminate it was by another government decree or by a presidential edict (“ukase”). This also meant that no funds were allocated to mothball, demolish, or reuse surviving hardware, something which companies had to pay for out of their own pockets. It wasn’t until 2005, after numerous pleas from the Russian Space Agency, that the Russian government began to settle outstanding debts with companies involved in the Energiya-Buran program and also to provide funds to destroy or reuse surviving hardware [21].

There are few hard figures on the exact cost of the Energiya-Buran program, but there can be little doubt that it gobbled up a significant portion of the annual Soviet space budget, especially during the 1980s. This was even to the detriment of ongoing piloted space programs. According to the official NPO Energiya history so many funds had been diverted to Buran that by early 1984 work on the Mir space station had come to a virtual standstill [22].

In 1989 Soviet space officials for the first time released details of the budget. The 1989 space budget amounted to 6.9 billion rubles (about $10 billion according to the official exchange rates at the time), of which 3.9 billion went to military space programs, 1.7 billion to “economic and scientific programs’’ and 1.3 billion to Energiya-Buran [23]. Speaking at a Cosmonautics Day meeting on 12 April 1993, Koptev said that wielding the axe on the program had freed up 40-45 percent of the resources spent on the entire civilian space program [24]. As for the overall cost of the program, at the end of 1989 Glavkosmos chief Dunayev said that 14 billion rubles had been spent during thirteen years of development and testing [25]. Boris Gubanov says that by 1 January 1991 the program had cost a total of 16.4 billion rubles, of which 12.3 billion had gone to design and testing and 4.1 billion to “capital con­struction’’ [26].

Soviet officials regularly made optimistic statements along the lines that the numerous technological spin-offs from the Energiya-Buran program would even­tually pay back its cost. Dunayev said in late 1989 that 581 proposals had been made to other industrial sectors to introduce those spin-offs, adding that the expected savings from proposals already adopted amounted to hundreds of millions of rubles and that the total 14 billion rubles invested in research and development would be returned by the year 2000 [27]. Korolyov bureau veteran Boris Chertok even claimed that the spin-offs would more than pay for the expenditures on creating the system, even if it was never launched into space again [28].