Seven years after the United States

flew its first

space shuttle mission

, t

he Soviet Union launched

its own

space plane

from the BaikonurCosmodrome in

Kazakhstan using

an Energia heavy-lift booster.

The unmanned mission was the first and, as it turned out, only flight of Buran, the Soviet Union’s answer to the U.S. space shuttle.

The Buran orbiter

, built by Molniya Research Industrial Corp. of Moscow, made two Earth orbits before

re-entering the atmosphere and gliding in for a runway landing at Baikonur. The entire flight lasted 205 minutes.

Using an automated system, the Buran


1.5 meters from the center of the runway despite a nearly 58-kilometer-per-hour crosswind. The Soviet space plane

only lost five of its 34,000 heat shield tiles, according to

NASA’s Web site


The Buran project was formally approved in 1976 to counter the perceived strategic capabilities of the U.S. space shuttle, then in development, which was intended to serve both NASA and the U.S. military. The project was led by the Soviet Ministry of Defense with NPO Energia of Moscow serving as prime contractor.

Soviet engineers borrowed heavily from the U.S. vehicle’s design and the result was a Buran orbiter that from an aerodynamic standpoint is barely distinguishable from its U.S. counterpart.

There were important differences, however, particularly in

the booster vehicle.

Buran’s liquid-fueled Energia main booster

, built by NPO


was less efficient but more powerful than NASA’s solid-fueled

booster assembly used to loft the space shuttle


The Energia heavy-lifter made a test flight in 1987 carrying a military payload. The payload failed to achieve a sustainable orbit due to a guidance system problem, but the booster performed as expected, clearing the way for the first of what was supposed to be an initial series of 10 Buran missions, according to the online Encyclopedia Astronautica.

At the time Buran was being developed, the Soviets had little experience with solid-fueled rockets and lacked the infrastructure necessary to develop large ones, according Encyclopedia Astronautica. But while the decision was made to go with liquid-fueled booster rockets, built by NPO Yushnoye of Ukraine, the Buran’s main engine, like that of the space shuttle, was a throttleable design fueled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

The Soviets originally planned to build three Buran orbiters, a goal that was increased to five. Ultimately, however, only three Buran airframes were built.

The Soviets envisioned


would fly about 30 missions per

year, deploying and servicing military satellites and transporting cosmonauts to and from

space stations. But the Soviets already had a reliable stable of expendable rockets for those missions, and Buran would wind up making only one flight.

In the early 1990s, Buran

fell victim not only to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, but to its own lack of a concrete purpose.

There was not enough money to support the costly program, and the newly formed Russian Space Agency had to





for either the

Mir space station or

. In March 1992, Yuri Koptev, the general director of the

Russian Space Agency,




There were a number of proposals to revive Buran. In October 1992, for example,

Stepanov, director general of the engineering department of the Russian Ministry of Industry, said Buran would be launched to Mir in November 1993



that flight never materialized.

Although Buran was never officially canceled, its funding was halted and it disappeared from Russian budgets in 1993, according to Encyclopedia Astronautica