Space history of the past few decades is dominated by the Space Shuttle. Envisioned as a revolution in access to space it was designed to be launched numerous times per year, dramatically reducing the costs of access to space. The reality was unfortunately not in line with the vision as the numerous design concessions made, coupled with the incredibly long average turnaround time for missions, meant that the costs far exceeded that of many other alternative systems. Still it was an iconic craft, one that several generations will point to as the one thing they remember about our trips beyond our atmosphere. What few people realise though is that there was potential for the shuttle to have a Russian sister and her name was Buran.
The Buran project started in 1974, only 5 or so years after the Space Shuttle program was kicked off by NASA. The goals of both projects were quite similar in nature, both aiming to develop a reusable craft that could deliver satellites, cosmonauts and other cargo into orbit. Indeed when you look at the resulting craft, one of which is shown above in its abandoned complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the similarities are striking. It gets even more interesting when you compare their resulting specifications as they’re almost identical with only a meter or two difference between them. Of course under the hood there’s a lot of differences, especially when it comes to the primary purpose of the Buran launch system,
The propulsion system of the Buran differed significantly from the Shuttle with the boosters being a liquid oxygen/hydrogen mix rather than a solid rocket fuel. There are advantages to this, chief among them being able to shut down the engines once you start them (something solid rocket boosters can’t do) however at the same time these were not designed to be reusable, unlike their Shuttle compatriots. This would mean that the only reusable part of the Buran launch system was the orbiter itself which would increase the per-launch cost. Additionally the Buran included a fully autonomous flight control system from the get go, something the Shuttle only received during an upgrade later in its life.
That last part is somewhat telling of Buran’s true purpose as, whilst it could service non-military goals, it was primarily developed to assist Russia’s (then the Soviet Union) military interests. Indeed the winged profile of the craft enables many mission profiles that are simply of no interest to non-military agencies and having it fully autonomous from the get go shows it was meant more conflict than research. Indeed when commenting on the programme’s cancellation a Russian cosmonaut commented that the Buran didn’t have any civilian tasks planned for it and, with a lack of requirements to fuel a military programme, it was cancelled.
That was not before it saw numerous test flights, including a successful orbital test flight. The achievements that the Buran made during its single flight are not to be underestimated as it was the first craft to perform such a flight fully unmanned and to make a fully automated landing. That latter feat is even more impressive when you consider that there was a very strong crosswind, some 60 kilometers per hour, and it managed to land mere meters off its originally intended mark. Indeed had Russia continued development of the Buran shuttle there’s every chance that it would have been a much more advanced version of its American sister for a very long time.
Today however the Buran shuttles and their various test components lie scattered around the globe in varying states of disrepair and decay. Every so often rumours about a resurrection of the program surface, however it’s been so long since the program was in operation that such a program would only share the name and little more. Russia’s space program has continued on to great success however, their Soyuz craft becoming the backbone of many of humanity’s endeavours in space. Whilst the Buran may never have become the icon for space that its sister Shuttle did it remains the highly advanced concept that could have been, a testament to the ingenuity and capability of the Russian space program.
The retirement of the Shuttle, whilst leaving the USA without any means with which to deliver humans or cargo to the International Space Station, was necessary to bring about the next evolution in the space industry. In the lead up to its retirement many entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to crack into a market that was once only for government superpowers and the contractors that serviced them. Today the private space industry can count dozens of companies vying for a piece of the final frontier and the coming decade is looking ever more bright for those of us who have aspirations that reach past the comforts of our home world.
It seems to be a common thread amongst many entrepreneurs that whilst they may have made their fortunes here on terra firma their eyes were always gazing heavenward. Just off the top of my head I can name Elon Musk (SpaceX, made his fortunes through PayPal), Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace, chain hotel giant) and now we can also count Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) amongst their ranks as he’s founded a new space company called Stratolaunch:
Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human
missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more
flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches
will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.
Stratolaunch isn’t like your traditional private space company who’s out to develop their own launch system in order to bring costs down. No, instead they’re more of a systems integrator combining technology from (in my opinion) all the right places. Their booster will be made by SpaceX, their carrier plane will be made by Scaled Composites (of SpaceShipOne fame) and the systems integration will be done Dynetics. It’s a very Microsofty way of doing things and all of the companies they’ve selected have a good history of delivering on the capabilities they set out to achieve, so this is definitely a recipe for success.
Their launch system is intriguing as well and not just because its another iconic Rutan design. Just like SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne the Stratolaunch system is made up of a carrier craft and a rocket with the payload attached. Now long time readers will know that whilst air launched rockets are a good way to get into sub-orbital trajectories the rule of 6 (Mach 6 and 60,000 feet is 6% of the required energy to get to orbit) means that they’re not terribly effective for larger payloads. However the scale of the Stratolaunch system is quite phenomenal and is beyond anything that’s been attempted with this kind of system previously.
For starters the carrier craft will be the largest aircraft that’s ever flown. Now that’s quite a claim to fame as the largest aircraft ever built (barring the Spruce Goose, which is actually smaller despite its larger wingspan) is the Antonov An225. The An225 is a Russian craft designed to carry oversized payloads and there’s a brilliant shot in the link that shows it carrying Russia’s Buran Shuttle to give you an idea just how massive the thing is. The Stratolaunch carrier will dwarf that craft considerably weighing almost twice as much with well over double the thrust from the more modern engines. Combining this all together nets you a plane capable of carrying a staggering 490,000 pounds (~222,260 kgs) of payload. For it’s intended purpose that makes the Stratolaunch system capable of delivering some significant payloads.
Since SpaceX will be designing the booster we can assume it will be a middle of the road rocket between the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. My back of the envelope calculations using the Falcon 9 and scaling it back to the maximum payload of the Stratolaunch system puts the payload capability to LEO at 15,333lbs or about 7 tons. Considering the launch system is a reusable craft its conceivable that Stratolaunch could drive costs down considerably through economies of scale thanks to the (I assume) quick turn around times for launching from the carrier craft. I’ll also bet that the USA military will have a keen eye on this entire system as well since it’s capabilities could be quite useful to them.
I think Allen is onto a winner here with this kind of design and it has a lot of potential to change the small to medium payload game. Some of the technical feats they’re out to accomplish are truly inspiring and I’ll be waiting anxiously for them to come to fruition.