The birth of Buran
Although there was significant spaceplane research in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it was still dwarfed by the effort the country put into its mainstream manned space program, the one that was visible to the outside world. In terms of successes, there were two distinct periods in the Soviet piloted space program in the 1960s. The first part of the decade was marked by amazing triumphs that stunned the whole world. There was the pioneering flight of Yuriy Gagarin in 1961, the first flight into space by a woman (Vostok-6 in 1963), the first three-man flight (Voskhod in 1964), and the first spacewalk (Voskhod-2 in 1965). Then things started going downhill in spectacular fashion. First, there was the death in January 1966 of chief designer Sergey Korolyov, the mastermind behind the Soviet Union’s early space triumphs. After a two-year gap in piloted space missions, the maiden manned flight of the Soyuz capsule ended in disaster with the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in April 1967.
Meanwhile, in August 1964 the Soviet Union had secretly decided to send men to the Moon in response to the Apollo program, kicked off three years earlier by President Kennedy’s announcement in May 1961. The Soviet piloted Moon program was to be carried out in two stages, beginning with manned circumlunar flights (using the L-1 capsules and the Proton rocket) and culminating in manned landings on the lunar surface (using the L-3 complex and the massive N-1 rocket). While the Russians came relatively close to beating America in the circumlunar race, they never stood a chance of upstaging the United States in putting a man on the Moon. Already months behind schedule, the L-3 lunar-landing program was thrown into complete disarray by the catastrophic failure of the first two test flights of the N-1 rocket in February and July 1969.
At the same time, the Soyuz program continued as an independent effort, with a couple of missions flown in 1968 and 1969 (albeit with mixed success). While Soyuz shared many features with the manned lunar craft, the Soyuz program, essentially a
remnant of a canceled circumlunar project of the early 1960s, lacked a clear sense of direction.
Realizing that the ailing Soviet manned space program needed a fresh impetus, a small group of engineers within the Korolyov design bureau started working out plans in mid-1969 for an Earth-orbiting space station (Long-term Orbital Station or DOS) that could be built relatively quickly using available technology and would use Soyuz as a ferry vehicle. By early 1970 they saw their plans approved with the release of a key government decree that would determine the course of the Soviet Union’s piloted space activities for the remainder of the century. After a herculean effort lasting just over one year, the space station, officially dubbed Salyut, rocketed into orbit in April 1971. Unfortunately, the three cosmonauts who boarded the station two months later died during the return to Earth.