Sadovskiy, Kolyako & Tsybin:
Fifteen years ago today, the Soviet space shuttle "Buran" was launched from Baikonur on an Energiya booster. Derided at the time for being a copy of the U.S. Space Shuttle, the actual technical accomplishments of this flight have been glossed over. The similarities in aerodynamic design disappear once you look at the details.
The decision to avoid solid rocket boosters and cryogenic engine technology used on the U.S. Shuttle led to the development of the Energiya booster, capable of putting 88,000kg into low Earth orbit, and 22,000kg to geosynchronous orbit (in comparison, Ariane-V can lift 18,000kg to LEO and 6,800kg to geosynchronous; the Shuttle can lift 24,400kg to LEO, 5,900kg to geosynchronous transfer orbit; and the Saturn-V got 118,000kg to LEO, 47,000kg to translunar trajectory).
This configuration allowed Buran to actually have a larger payload capacity than the Shuttle (30,000kg vs. 25,000kg), despite its smaller physical orbiter size (105,000kg vs. 123,000kg).
The launch was carried out despite a 4°C temperature, with snow flurries and 72km/hr winds (appropriately, since 'Buran' means blizzard in Russian). Control was maintained through radio link with several Gorizont, Luch and Molniya comsats and tracking ships (interestingly, one of the ships off Chile was named the "Marshall Nedelin"...). Two orbits later, the spacecraft landed on complete auto pilot, less than 2m off the runway center-line at Baikonur, even after battling a 65km/hr crosswind at 30 degrees off-runway. Five tiles were lost on re-entry (I actually have one of the replacement tiles sitting on my desk!). Exhaustive pre-flight testing with many scale versions and six full size mockups contributed to this first orbital test's success.
Buran on final approach, and on roll-out:
All above photos (c) NPO Molniya
Here is a link to a short MPEG (5.1Mb) video of the Buran on final approach shot by Igor Volk, head of the Buran Cosmonaut team, from the MiG-25 chase plane seen above.
Technical accomplishments aside, the logistical, economic and political requirements necessary to carry out this mission doomed it to failure within the Soviet system. In fact, it is probable that the vast investment in the Energiya and Buran programs themselves contributed to the implosion of the Soviet system ($20 billion rubles in Buran alone). The Energiya only ever flew twice. One other Energiya launch had been carried out previous to Buran, but the payload, the military "battle station" Polyus malfunctioned, and never reached orbit.
Buran was to have flown in December of 1994 to Mir and delivered another module, but the entire Energiya/Buranprogram was cancelled by Boris Yeltsin on June 30, 1993. It didn't help that one of the 1991 coup plotters was the Buran project manager.
In the end, all the Energiyas that had been produced were cannibalized, with their engines used on Zenit and U.S. Atlas vehicles. The Buran flyers were mothballed, and suffered various fates - museums, scrap heaps, and one as part of the amusement section of Gorky park in Moscow. The original idea was to set it up as a space-food restaurant, but it now serves as a slightly dilapidated theatre/vehicle for simulated space rides, as seen below.
Above photos (c) 2000 Jane Skorina
In all, a very Russian ending to the story.