Flight of the Buran

An artist’s portrayal of the Buran launch of November 15, 1988.

November 15 is the anniversary of one of the biggest “what if” stories in the history of space development. The exploits of the United States Columbia class space shuttle are well documented, but on this day in 1988, another contender appeared.

Under a veil of secrecy, the Soviet Union launched a re-useable launch vehicle of their own, called Buran (Snowstorm). On the surface, the resemblance to the United States counterpart is obvious, but the engineering was a bit different. For example, Buran did not have an on-board launch engine. Whereas the American shuttle carried a trio of heavy rocket engines that fed off an external fuel tank, the Buran orbiter was designed to ride as a side-mounted payload on a specially configured Energia booster. This would have given Buran a larger payload capacity than the Columbia class shuttle, but at the same time, Buran wouldn’t have had the orbital range of a Columbia. Buran would have been limited to low-earth orbit, which would have been fine for visiting Mir, or later the International Space Station. But something like the Hubble telescope, or any of the high orbiting communication or research satellites, places that the Columbia series did visit, would have been beyond Buran’s reach.

Another major difference with Buran was that the ship could be flown entirely by remote control. In fact, her one and only flight was handled entirely by ground control crew, and the flight was almost flawless. The idea was that Buran could be used both as a personnel transport module, and as a recoverable excursion module. There were some scientific and military missions planned for Buran, mostly in the area of materials engineering, where the orbiter would remain in orbit for several months while on-board computers conducted experiments on various materials. At the conclusion of the experiments, the orbiter would return to earth, loaded with samples.

The biggest difference with Buran was its overall modular design. The Columbia series had some modularity, but not to the same extent. The Buran program had specialized modules and components that could perform a wide variety of applications. All of the components used the same core specifications, making it possible to piece together a targeted spacecraft for almost any type of mission imaginable. It was a wonderful design, with a lot of potential.

Unfortunately, this versatile and modular design was perhaps it’s downfall. Many people have criticized the Columbia series for its extreme cost and sometimes unreliable performance. The big irony here is that the Columbia series had been optimized for cost efficiency! At one time, the Space Shuttle program was as extensive and ambitious as Buran, if not more so. But over time almost every optional feature was removed in the interest cost cutting. And even with all of the cost cutting measures, the Space Shuttle was never as cost effective as the designers had hoped. Many people have looked at the original specs and determined that given the available technology, the Shuttle would never have been economically viable.

Buran had the same problem, only more so. The Soviet Union, having a command driven economy, wasn’t as concerned with cost effectiveness as the United States, so it designed it’s shuttle program to full spec. When Buran made her first test flight in 1988, the system was taking shape at various facilities around the USSR. But the infrastructure, manpower, and supply requirements were turning out to be enormous! Even the most liberal of estimates were falling far short of what was actually going to be required. But the Russians soldiered on.

Sadly, by 1990 the shortfalls of the Soviet economy had become impossible to ignore, and Buran’s future looked bleak. Just about everyone in the USSR knew that things could not continue as they had been since the 1920’s, but no one yet knew what would emerge to replace the old system. There was hope that with proper planning the Buran program would continue, but it didn’t.

The USSR imploded in 1991, and the Russian Space Agency officially cancelled the Buran program in 1993. There are some who theorize that the extreme cost and breadth of the Buran program was a key cause in the Soviet Union’s collapse. I don’t know about that, but it certainly didn’t help.

Here is the most bitter pill of all. The USSR built their space shuttle program to full spec, and it proved too large and too expensive to maintain. The United States, meanwhile, built their program for cost efficiency, and ultimately it was still too large and expensive to maintain! Aerospace designers on both sides of the world have since concluded that the “reusable shuttle” concept was an unwise path from the beginning.

What makes Buran a big “what if” scenario are the events that followed. The orbiter itself was placed in a hanger near the Baikonur in Kazakhstan. At some point in the late 1990’s, when the space faring nations were planning what eventually became the International Space Station, there was a lot of exchange of ideas between the Russian and American aerospace designers. At one point, a handful of engineers from the Space Shuttle program examined the Buran orbiter, still languishing in its dusty hanger. They concluded that with a mechanical overhaul and an upgrade to the electrical system, the Buran could be made space worthy again. Given that heavy rockets capable of lifting the orbiter were still being built and used by the Russians, and the Americans had groups of technicians available to service shuttles of a very similar design, the necessary infrastructure and manpower was available. It would have taken some tinkering, but Buran could have been made operational for the building of the International Space Station.

It’s likely that the program would have eventually become unmanageable and out of date, much like the Space Shuttle program did. But it could have been made operational for a time, and during that time it would have been a boon. If the space faring community had access to another shuttle, the station could have been completed as much as three years earlier. Had that happened, many other options might now be available in the area of space development. If nothing else, the aerospace community would now have more experience with heavy lifting boosters and computer-based navigation. I suspect the cost of getting Buran operational again was too much for the coalition of nations to seriously consider, especially since (in theory) four space shuttles were already available.

When the fleet of operational shuttles went from four to three in February of 2003, it was too late. Buran’s life ended with a sad whimper. Poor maintenance of the hanger where she was stored caused it to collapse during a storm in 2002. Eight workers were killed, and the orbiter itself was destroyed.

The Russians are currently designing a new generation of Soyuz capsules for future applications, and some of the technologies developed for Buran are being re-visited. This is not unlike the Orion program, which incorporates many technologies from both the Space Shuttle program and the earlier Apollo program.

The legacy of Buran is still being written.


SSM module: Isadora


I have made a few modules for Space Station Manager, though it would be more accurate to call them hacks than modules. I wanted to experiment with different configurations of station, so I made up modules that handle resources differently than the standard ones.

One such module is the Isadora artisan studio. This module is based on an actual proposal by Brazilian artist and engineer, Ricky Seabra.

The basic idea is that Isadora is an art studio in outer space. It provides space for artisans in much the same way science modules provide space for scientists. Seabra is reported to have once asked “Why should scientists have all the fun?”

Why indeed?

Within the confines of this simulator, Isadora generates income from the production of high quality astronomy photographs and holograms, motion pictures, recordings of micro-gravity dance and gymnastics, and the production of micro-gravity sculpture. When artisans aren’t using the studio, it can also serve as a lounge for crew members, or as a destination for space tourists. It doesn’t generate as much income as a science module. But by the same token it doesn’t require as many resources to operate and maintain as a science module.

Within the simulation, Isadora looks like a standard module with sky-blue portals.

Requires: 2 energy, 1 cooling, 1 life support
Provides: 1 lab space, 4 credits

Isadora (Class: Commercial)

48 KB, ZIP Gaming Isadora module for Space Station Manager.


OV-102 Columbia

First of the line…

Today is the anniversary of yet another dark day in space exploration. On this date in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia (OV-102) broke up during re-entry, killing all seven crew members. A hairline fracture in the leading edge of the port wing, caused by falling ice during the January 16th launch, allowed superheated plasma to enter the superstructure of the shuttle during re-entry, causing it to break up.

The names of her crew were Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

In contrast with the loss of Challenger, seventeen years earlier, my reaction to the loss of Columbia was one of outrage and anger. Columbia failed because of bad management and political inertia, things that were theoretically corrected after the Challenger accident. As I understand it, for almost the entire 16-day mission, mid-level engineers at NASA (and it’s contractors) were frantically trying to inform mission control about possible damage to the orbiter’s leading wing edge, and were trying to come up with alternatives, but to no avail. The high level executives at NASA were more concerned about their political positions and their professional reputations than with the welfare of the astronauts.

On top of this, the loss of Columbia showed that the Space Shuttle system, while an amazing piece of engineering, was a fundamentally flawed and unreliable system. There were just too many places where things could go wrong. In truth, many people, including many aerospace engineers who helped develop the system, had been saying this for a long time. Many have since stated that the space program should have chosen a different avenue back in the 1970s, and gone with something other than the shuttle.

The shuttle program is now finished, and at the moment, the United States is currently developing a replacement system. A lot of space development is now being handled by the private sector. This may actually turn out for the best, at least for now. Even so, I can’t help but be skeptical. But at the same time, I’m not hopeless.

I have one rather flippant question to pose. The worst accidents in the history of the United States space program have all taken place in late January. Why does NASA still launch manned vehicles during this time period?


OV-099 Challenger

Lest we forget…

Today is another dark anniversary in the history of space exploration. On this day in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger embarked on it’s tenth mission, and the twenty-fifth mission of the shuttle program overall. On board were a collection of scientific experiments, a specialized communication satellite, and the first civilian chosen to fly in space, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe.

Exactly 72 seconds after liftoff, the external fuel tank exploded, destroying the shuttle and killing all seven crew members.

Their names were Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, and Ronald McNair.

It was later determined that a faulty o-ring on one of the solid rocket boosters caused a runaway fire that ruptured a liquid fuel line, resulting in an explosion.

This was one of those events where you remember what you were doing and where you were. I was watching the launch from the common room of the Robinson-Falconio dormitory at St. Bonaventure University, where I was a freshman computer science major. At the 72 second mark, the room suddenly went deathly quiet. We couldn’t believe what we had just seen.

According to NASA legend, there was a shuttle astronaut who warned that eventually one of the shuttles would be destroyed during a mission, and cautioned NASA to not get complacent in managing the program. The astronaut’s name was Francis “Dick” Scobee, and he was Challenger’s final commander. There is some evidence to suggest that in the last seconds of the flight, Scobee and pilot Michael Smith were initiating the emergency detach procedure, which might have saved the shuttle and her crew, but we’ll never know for sure.

The effects of this tragedy are still felt today. At that point the space program had found a new role in our culture, and it carried a “can do” mindset that was infectious and inspiring. The loss of OV-099 (Challenger) dealt what proved to be a mortal blow to that view. Today, the space program is a shadow of what it used to be, and the collective response seems to be “no great loss.”

It’s a tragic and saddening loss that is difficult to describe. And the tragedy isn’t restricted to the space program. The adventurous, determined “can do” attitude that defined much of our nation’s history, and which the space program had come to represent, appears to be dying. Now, as a people, we seem more concerned with our own selfish personal agendas and no longer giving a toss about the common good. We’ve become more interested in doing what is profitable rather than what is right.

Those concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but they usually are.

The loss of OV-099 isn’t the sole reason for this change. A lot of things contributed to this collective change of heart. Where did things start to go wrong? There are several possible answers for that, and they all have some validity. I won’t claim to know when it started, but the assassination of John F. Kennedy may be a good place to start. Other key points could be the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the energy crisis of the 1970’s, to name a few.

Personally, I believe the loss of Challenger was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. This computer scientist turned historian will go so far as to suggest that in the aftermath of January 28, 1986, it became clear that the United States had somewhere, somehow, and at some point, lost it’s way.

But I’m pretty sure we can find it again, if we work at it. As a former president once said:

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
-Bill Clinton

I hope he’s right.