The Road Ahead for Space Travel

With yesterday’s retirement of Discovery, perhaps it’s time for Russia to resurrect their Buran space shuttle program. With recent NASA cutbacks announced and no new shuttle plans in the works here at home, perhaps Russia or other partner countries can benefit from the technologies developed and used in the defunct U.S. shuttle program. Either way, it will be interesting to watch if Russia or other countries create their own shuttle programs in the years ahead.

The Road Ahead

With the impending launch of SpaceX on April 30th (I’m sure Virgin Galactic isn’t be too far behind either), now is an extremely exciting time in the world of space travel within the private sector here in the U.S. Time will tell whether they’ve gotten it right or not but I’m hoping for the best. I remain optimistic about the future of space travel on an international basis as well – even if it means that private companies will lead the way in the U.S., and our own astronauts are to be taxi’d to the great beyond via partner countries’ spacecraft.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what other countries have done in the past in terms of space travel and similar programs that might replace the U.S. shuttle program. One such option may be the former USSR’s Buran space shuttle program.

Meet the Buran Space Shuttle

While most astronomy enthusiasts are familiar with the STS space shuttle, few are familiar with efforts by the former USSR to develop almost identical technology. The Buran (Snowstorm) was an orbital space plane that resembled the more familiar U.S. space shuttle in many ways. Unlike U.S. shuttles, however, the Buran only enjoyed one mission.

The spacecraft took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on November 15, 1988. While one might have expected there to be a human crew aboard, the vessel was actually completely run by computers. This flight was the first time that such a complex spacecraft was operated totally under automatic guidance. The Buran only lost five out of the 38,000 installed thermal tiles. Automatic reentry had become a proven technology at the time of flight.

Sadly, the spacecraft was destroyed during a hanger collapse at the Baiknour Cosmodrome on May 12, 2002. It had been sitting there for years at the time the collapse occurred. The project was canceled after the breakup of the USSR, but there are hopes that Russia will again enjoy the benefits that come from having a reusable launch platform. The Buran story is starting to enjoy a resurgence in interest. Online resources feature a photo gallery, videos and a store to buy computer software from. Russian authorities have recently flirted with various reusable spacecraft designs. These include the postponed Kliper (Clipper) project and the Prospective Piloted Transport System.

Closing Thoughts

The Buran space shuttle was an interesting, albeit short-lived, spacecraft. Whether or not Russia will bring the shuttle back remains to be seen. I encourage your feedback on this – do you think it would be wise for Russia to resurrect the Buran craft (or similar shuttle program) moving forward? What about other countries – do you think China, the U.K., or perhaps even Russia will lead the way in terms of space travel in the years ahead? What are your thoughts on the future role the U.S. might play in this arena? I look forward to hearing from you!

Reference:

Matthews, M. K. (2011, May 12). NASA’s post-shuttle plan draws criticism. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/12/nation/la-na-recycled-shuttle-rocket-20110512

Wall, M. (2012, April 16). NASA gives all-clear for SpaceX launch April 30 . Msnbc.com. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47067510/ns/technology_and_science-space/

NPO MOLNIYA. (n.d.). Космический корабль Буран. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from http://buran.ru/htm/molniya.htm

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