Baikonur - June 30, 2001
Russia plans to reassert itself as a major power in space by resurrecting the Buran space shuttle, a relic of the Soviet era. It will pay for the development programme in part by taking more space tourists like Dennis Tito up to the space station.
Buran was mothballed in the early 1990s by the cash-strapped Russian government. But with the satellite launching business expanding and the International Space Station running behind schedule, Russian space officials think Buran's time has come.
Last week Energia, the state company which built Buran, opened its hangars at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to show Western aerospace engineers that Buran is ready and waiting for relaunch.
"There is a future for this programme," says Leonid Gurushkin, director of launch operations at Baikonur.
"Buran is the only launcher with a 100-tonne payload," he says. "By extending the length we can carry 200 tonnes. There is no alternative to Buran and I don't see any coming."
The largest load possible in a Western launcher is little more than 20 tonnes. So far, the giant craft has made only one flight, in 1988. Flying without a crew, it orbited the Earth twice, before landing on a purpose-built strip at Baikonur.
Energia built two Buran shuttles and three main boosters to carry them. While the Soviet Union was crumbling around them, Energia's engineers continued to get funding because the military saw Buran as vital to any missile defence system similar to America's Star Wars. Buran's only imported component was heat-resistant paint.
The Buran project would have employed 30,000 people, and there were plans for up to 30 launches a year. The new Russian government finally cut off funding in 1992.
Now the buildings where Buran was designed and built are being renovated to accommodate Western engineers who come to Baikonur for commercial satellite launches by Russian Proton rockets.
The 4.5-kilometre landing strip that was built for Buran was recently refurbished by an American company to land Russian Antonov cargo aircraft, the only planes large enough to carry big satellites.
Like all Russian space vehicles, and the nuclear-armed missiles on which they were based, Buran is assembled horizontally and moved by rail to the launch pad, where it is raised to vertical. The process takes only a few days.
All the necessary machinery is still in place at Baikonur, and the hangars are stacked with spare rocket motor parts and fuel tanks.
"The launcher is powered by hydrogen, oxygen and kerosene," says Gurushkin. "The strap-on boosters are reuseable. They drop back to the airstrip. In fact only the core unit is lost."
Energia thinks there is now a role for Buran because the International Space Station is creating the need to carry ever larger loads into low orbit. "We have been dreaming of this time," says Gurushkin.
Russia's other state space company, Khrunichev, is a rival to Energia, but its director Alexander Kondratiev says he welcomes any opportunity for Russian space engineers to compete with the West on an equal footing. "Until 1990 we couldn't tell anyone what we were doing. But now we can show the world our worth."
Ironically, the money for Buran's revival will be coming from the West. In the past 17 months, Russian Protons have launched 17 commercial satellites, earning Russia more than $100 million per launch.
And despite NASA's opposition, Gurushkin says Russian flights to the space station will soon carry more space tourists. "We already have many applications. We are currently considering them all and will take whoever pays most," he says.
This article will appear in the June 30, 2001 issue of New Scientist.Related Links
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