Snooping on Buran

Although the Energiya-Buran program remained shrouded in secrecy for much of the 1980s, US intelligence specialists had a fairly good idea of the system’s character­istics and capabilities, mainly thanks to detailed American reconnaissance satellite images of both Baykonur and the Flight Research Institute (LII) in Zhukovskiy. The latter was identified in the intelligence literature as Ramenskoye, which is the name of LII’s airfield in Zhukovskiy and (confusingly) also of a neighboring town and railway station.

The first clear evidence for the existence of a large shuttle came in the late 1970s, when construction of the runway and launch pads at Baykonur got underway. The Energiya-Buran pads were identified as “Complex J’’ (the same code name given to the N-1 pads) and the UKSS pad as “Complex W’’. By 1982 spy satellites had even spotted the construction of the back-up runway in the Soviet Far East. [14].

The first public assessment of the system’s capabilities was given in Soviet Military Power 1983, published in early 1983. Since the first test models of Energiya were yet to be rolled out to the pad, analysts still had a poor understanding of the system’s configuration and capabilities. Drawings showed the Soviet shuttle mounted on an external tank with two rocket boosters, with the main engines apparently on the orbiter itself. The lift-off weight of the system was estimated to be just 1,500 tons compared with the NASA Shuttle lift-off weight of 2,220 tons. Combined with an estimated lift-off thrust of between 1,800 and 2,700 tons (compared with roughly 3,000 tons for the Shuttle), this translated into a staggering payload capacity of 60 tons, twice that of the Space Shuttle Orbiter. The Soviet shuttle was believed to have a substantially different wing design with an 80-degree sweep. The heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLLV) was depicted as a 95 m high core vehicle with three 35 m high liquid propellant boosters and a top-mounted payload with a maximum mass of between 130 and 150 tons [15].

Assessment of Soviet heavy-lift launch vehicle capabilities in Soviet Military Power 1983 {source: US Department of Defense).

By the middle of 1983 several events led to a much better understanding of the Soviet shuttle system. Spy satellites had acquired detailed images of a test orbiter sitting atop a VM-T carrier aircraft during tests earlier in the year and had also spotted an incident in which the pair accidentally skidded off the runway in March 1983. Moreover, the first test versions of Energiya had been rolled out of the assembly building in the first half of the year. A CIA National Intelligence Estimate in July 1983 now correctly concluded that the orbiter had a configuration very similar to that of the US Space Shuttle Orbiter and that the main engines were on the core rather than on the orbiter. The report was wrong in stating that the rocket had only two strap-on boosters and that the core was outfitted with “at least two and probably three engines”. This may have been related to the fact that the Energiya rolled out in May 1983 had only three nozzles installed on the core stage {see Chapter 6). The report referred to the spherical sections above the core stage nozzles as “pod-like

US Defense Department representation of Soviet shuttle on the pad. Illustration from Soviet Military Power 1986 (source: US Department of Defense).

objects” that were erroneously interpreted as part of a recovery system for the LOX/LH2 engines [16]. In Soviet Military Power 1984 lift-off weight and thrust were now estimated at 2,000 tons and 3,000 tons, respectively, resulting in an orbiter payload capacity of 30 tons. The HLLV was still expected to be a nearly 100 m high rocket with six or more strap-on boosters and a payload capacity of 150 tons, a configuration that was actually more reminiscent of the Vulkan rocket.

It was not until the 1986 edition that Soviet Military Power published a drawing of a 100-ton capacity HLLV where the orbiter was replaced by a side-mounted cargo pod. This was also the first edition that got the dimensions of the rocket/orbiter stack more or less right, although the first Energiya-Buran combination did not make its appearance on the Baykonur launch pads until summer/autumn of 1986, after the report had been published. The following year potential payloads for the cargo version of the rocket were said to be modules for large space stations, components for a manned or unmanned interplanetary mission, and even directed-energy ASAT and ballistic missile defense weapons.

Reconnaissance satellite images of Baykonur also gave some idea of how the testing proceeded. In 1984 and early 1985 the SL-X-16 (“Zenit”) medium-lift booster had been observed being alternately removed from and erected on the pad, suggesting Soviet dissatisfaction with the ground test results. This in turn had implications for

US Defense Department representation of Soviet shuttle atop the VM-T aircraft. Illustration from Soviet Military Power 1985 (source: US Department of Defense).

the HLLV/shuttle program, which used common engines. Apparently, the belief at this time was that the SL-X-16 was powered by liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engines and that these same engines were used both in the strap-ons and the core stage of the HLLV. The fact that no Energiya had yet been seen with an orbiter strapped to the side was also seen as an indication that the program was suffering delays [17]. When a test orbiter did finally undergo the first pad tests in August – October 1986, the news was reported only weeks later [18]. US reconnaissance assets apparently also picked up signs of the Energiya core stage test firings in the first half of 1986, but these were not openly reported until a year later [19].

Buran-related test activities were not always correctly interpreted, especially when the Soviet approach to testing was different than NASA’s. Just weeks before the first ground run of the BTS-002 atmospheric test bed at LII in late December 1984, Aviation Week correctly reported that approach and landing tests of the shuttle were imminent, but wrongly concluded that the vehicle would be dropped from the VM-T carrier aircraft in similar fashion to the test flights of Enterprise in 1977 [20]. In April 1986, by which time BTS-002 had performed numerous ground runs and two

landing tests, Aviation Week referred to reconnaissance photography showing jet engines mounted on either side of the tail, but still believed the vehicle was being dropped from the VM-T. The jet engines were thought to be on board only to test their ability to correct an orbiter’s flight path when returning from space and might or might not be lit prior to separation from the aircraft depending on test objectives [21].

Of course, the information that leaked out via Aviation Week did not necessarily reflect what the US intelligence community really knew. Other observers, taking into account the known capabilities of the VM-T, correctly concluded that it could hardly carry a full-size, full-weight orbiter to sufficient altitude for a safe free flight [22]. Aviation Week did not report the correct flight profile of the BTS-002 until late 1987 after having been informed by Soviet space officials at an international space congress in Moscow. The only mistake remaining was that the tests were said to take place at Baykonur [23].

Western observers had more to go on than just the intelligence community’s interpretation of reconnaissance satellite imagery. Pictures taken of Baykonur by civilian remote-sensing satellites such as the US Landsat and the French SPOT had sufficient resolution to show the construction work going on in support of the Energiya-Buran program. Unlike the spy satellite pictures, these were openly available to the public.

It is not clear how much information on the program leaked to the West through breaches in the Soviet censorship and security apparatus or via human intelligence. One piece of information that did slip through was that the name of the Soviet shuttle was Buran. The name first appeared in a 1983 CIA National Intelligence Estimate and also surfaced in several open Western publications the following years, well before the Russians officially announced it [24]. This information could not possibly have been gleaned from spy satellite photography, because the name was not on any of the test models and was not painted on the first flight vehicle until 1988. Actually, before 1988 Buran was not the name of a specific orbiter, but a generic name used by the Russians to refer to the combination of rocket and orbiter (see Chapter 2).