Yesterday was the tenth birthday of the International Space Station, measured from the first module being fired up into orbit. Last Saturday (thanks for the up to the minute coverage, Beeb) was the twentieth anniversary of something even more exciting – the one and only flight of Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle.
Buran was cool and it wasn’t just a steal from the US version, unlike the Soviet’s version of Concorde; there’s only so many shapes something designed to be a space shuttle can be. The Shuttle is a bodge, the rump remnant of a much more ambitious space programme left over from the sixties; Buran did exactly what it was designed to do, and did it well. The Shuttle is inferior technology bolstered up by the politics of the richest nation on Earth; Buran was superior technology let down by a state that couldn’t afford it. The Shuttle has to include its own engines to assist in lift-off, and once it ceases its burn those engines are just dead weight until the next time it takes off. Buran left all the taking-off business to its Energia booster, so every ounce and cubic inch on board could be dedicated to being a nifty piece of space kit.
It was also better designed generally. I hadn’t realised, until reading the BBC link, that apparently on its test flight it landed within 3 metres of the centre line of the runway, in winds that would have made the Shuttle cancel altogether. And this was under remote control.
Another key difference between the two was that Buran could fly. But it had no engines, I hear you cry! No, but in good Soviet make-and-mend fashion it could. For its test flights, you could strap on some jet engines with some sellotape and string, and it could take off like an aeroplane …
Basically, the Soviets watched far too much Gerry Anderson.
Of course, this is how a space launch should look.