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!


Matthews, M. K. (2011, May 12). NASA’s post-shuttle plan draws criticism. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from

Wall, M. (2012, April 16). NASA gives all-clear for SpaceX launch April 30 . Retrieved April 17, 2012, from

NPO MOLNIYA. (n.d.). Космический корабль Буран. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from

  • I didn’t know about the Russian shuttle. Thanks … Meanwhile, yesterday’s Discovery trip was outstanding.

  • I’m not sure anyone needs to resurrect shuttle type technology. Many in NASA and most private space enthusiasts believed the shuttle was a boondoggle. We’ve never LEO for forty years. The shuttle was a magnificent machine but it never achieved it’s design goals of making space travel cheap. The Constellation program is what we should be backing but Americans no longer want to spend money. The Constellation design is the appropriate technology for our times.

    The Russians and Chinese have proved that single use rockets are about as cheap as we’re going to get with chemical rockets. There are reasons why the Russians never went forward with Buran.

    If we ever want to colonize the final frontier we need to colonize the moon and learn to build rockets there. Earth’s gravity well is just too costly.

  • Yes, things are evolving much faster for machine exploration of space. Small, faster, cheaper. I think we should colonize the Moon first with machines that can build us a self-sufficient colony before we try to move in. There’s no need for people to do all that work, and it will force us to design intelligent machines that will evolve and replicate. Once the machines can build everything we need to survive, then send humans to live on Luna. Or rather in it. I believe we need to live below the surface.

  • If I remember correctly, the Buran design was very similar to the Space Shuttle design. As we learned from the Columbia disaster, this design is fundamentally flawed. You don’t want cryogenic fuel tanks above the orbiter due to the risks of ice chunks falling off and damaging the orbiter during launch. The older rocket stacks (the SpaceX approach) have proven to be a better design. Virgin Galactic’s carrier design also has potential. Buran? No, that should stay retired along with the Space Shuttles.

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