Soviet planners envisaged an extensive orbital test flight program for Buran, which at one point included as many as 10 missions, both unmanned and manned. By comparison, the US Space Shuttle flew just four (manned) test flights in 1981— 1982 before being declared operational.

For safety reasons, crews for the initial Buran test flights would have been restricted to just two cosmonauts. First, it was not practical to install ejection seats for more than two crew members and, second, if a life-threatening emergency arose in orbit, a Soyuz would have to be able to come to the rescue. Since that Soyuz needed a “rescue commander”, only two seats would be left in the vehicle for the stranded Buran crew.

Throughout the 1980s, there was disagreement on the composition of the initial Buran crews. LII in Zhukovskiy, backed by the Air Force, argued that both seats should be occupied by its experienced test pilots. However, NPO Energiya, intent on not being sidelined, pushed to fly one of its engineers in the co-pilot seat rather than an LII test pilot. Therefore, two types of crews were considered for most of the duration of the program: crews consisting of two LII pilots, on the one hand, and crews composed of one LII pilot and one NPO Energiya flight engineer, on the other hand.

It should be stressed that as Buran never came anywhere close to flying a manned mission, none of the crews mentioned below was ever officially assigned. The flight plan for the first manned mission remained vague until the end of the program and none of these crews performed any dedicated mission training.

LII crews

From the very beginning LII had the following crews in mind for the first flight:

Prime crew Back-up crew

Igor Volk Anatoliy Levchenko

Rimantas Stankyavichus Aleksandr Shchukin

The preference for Volk-Stankyavichus and Levchenko-Shchukin was reflected in the fact that the two crews flew the bulk of the atmospheric Horizontal Flight Tests with the BTS-002 Buran analog. A total of 24 such flights were performed between November 1985 and April 1988. Volk and Stankyavichus were paired for 11 of the missions and Levchenko and Shchukin jointly flew 4 missions (see Chapter 6).

The original crewing plan was completely disrupted in August 1988, when in a bizarre twist of fate Buran lost its entire back-up crew with the deaths of both Levchenko and Shchukin. As a result, Volk and Stankyavichus were split up and both got new co-pilots from the LII ranks [41]. Volk has claimed that GKNII pilots Ivan Bachurin and Aleksey Boroday, veterans of six BTS-002 flights, were also considered as the back-up crew [42]. The new crews were:

Prime crew Back-up crew

Igor Volk Rimantas Stankyavichus

Magomed Tolboyev Viktor Zabolotskiy

Internal LII documents show that another option considered was to retain the Volk- Stankyavichus team, with Zabolotskiy and Tolboyev acting as back-ups. This plan assumed that Zabolotskiy would first fly a Soyuz mission to give him the necessary spaceflight experience to command Buran if the need arose [43].

When Stankyavichus was killed in a plane crash in September 1990, LII was forced once again to change the composition of the back-up crew [44]. The new crews were:

Prime crew Back-up crew

Igor Volk Viktor Zabolotskiy

Magomed Tolboyev Ural Sultanov

These are the last crews known to have been considered by LII for the first piloted Buran mission.