The Snow Flies: A History of the Soviet Space Shuttle

Mission 1K1: Buran's First Flight

Report from “Wedel-Schulauer Tageblatt”, Saturday 16th May 1987

“Wreckage Found in Search for Wedel Pilot”

“English newspapers are reporting the discovery of wreckage believed to be from a light aircraft in the North Sea 325 km south of the Faroe Isles. The debris found so far is consistent with that of the Cessna 172P piloted by Wedel resident Mathias Rust, which was reported missing three days ago en-route from Uetersen to the Faroes. Mr. Rust, 18, had recently qualified as a solo pilot, and friends report that he was planning to visit Iceland and Norway in his rented aircraft. He was reported missing on Wednesday evening when he failed to arrive at the Faroes in accordance with his flight plan, triggering an extensive search by the British and Norwegian Coast Guards…” [1]


Mission 1K1: Buran First Flight, November 1988

“In flight, the orbiter ‘Buran’”


On November 15, 1988 the Soviet Union carried out a successful test of the space shuttle "Buran" .

Launched by the universal space-rocket transport system "Energia", the "Buran" orbiter went into orbit, made a double-turn flight around the Earth and landed in automatic mode on the runway of the Baikonur cosmodrome.

It is an outstanding success of national science and technology, opening a new stage in the Soviet space program. "Buran" is built to the plan of a "tailless" aircraft with a variable sweep delta wing, using aerodynamic controls - the rudder and elevons - for landing after returning to the dense layers of the atmosphere, able to make a controlled descent in the atmosphere with a lateral maneuver of up to 2,000 kilometers. The length of the "Buran" is 36.4 meters, with a wingspan of about 24 meters. The height of the ship, as it stands on its landing gear, is more than 16 meters. The starting weight of the ship is more than 100 tonnes, of which 14 tonnes are fuel. In the vast cargo bay can be placed a payload weighing up to 30 tonnes. The front compartment contains a sealed cabin for the crew and most of the equipment to support the mission as part of the launch vehicle complex , autonomous flight in orbit, descent and landing. The cabin volume is more than 70 cubic meters.

A very important feature of "Buran" is its powerful thermal protection, ensuring the normal thermal conditions for the body of the ship during the passage through the dense layers of the atmosphere during landing. The thermal barrier coating consists of a large number of tiles (about 38 thousand) made with high accuracy from special materials (quartz fiber, high temperature organic fibers partially carbon-based material) developed for the program, which takes into account the installation location of each tile on the fuselage. The rear part of the ship contains the main propulsion system, with two groups of maneuvering motors placed at the end of the tail section, and another group at the front of the body. The on-board control complex consists of more than fifty systems that are controlled automatically according to the program laid down in the on-board computer .

The first flight of "Buran" lasted 205 minutes and ended with a successful landing on a special runway about 5 kilometers long and 80 meters wide created near the Baikonur cosmodrome. It was the first automatic landing of a space shuttle in the history of astronautics. In this new outstanding contribution to space exploration, Soviet science and technology has won a brilliant victory.


From the New York Times, 29th September 1989

“Boris Yeltsin, Would-be Soviet Reformer, Dies at 58”

Boris N. Yeltsin, the burly provincial politician who became the Moscow Party boss and the only person to resign from the Politburo, died yesterday in Moscow. He was 58.

He was announced dead on arrival at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow 3:45 a.m. on Thursday morning, having been found by police officers on the banks of the Moscow River. According to a Kremlin announcement, the cause of death was drowning. An autopsy has apparently showed a high blood alcohol level, indicating that Mr. Yeltsin may have slipped whilst intoxicated and fallen into the river. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, speaking yesterday, called Mr. Yeltsin’s “a tragic fate.”... [2]


Moscow, May 1991

Yuri Pavlovich Semenov looked glumly out across the vast, half-empty hall of the Palace of Congresses. There was a muted sense of depression in the air as the one thousand delegates to the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union[3] slowly shuffled into the great hall under the steady gaze of the giant portrait of Lenin that formed a backdrop to the leadership’s table. The mood was hardly surprising, given the huge changes sweeping the country - changes exemplified by the rows of empty seats and, in particular, the complete absence of delegates from the Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian Parties. Though officially still part of the Union, the three Baltic states were now well and truly estranged from the Centre following the disastrous crackdown of the previous year.

Further gloom was added by uncertainty over just how much impact this Congress would have. The Party had, just barely, maintained its constitutionally-guaranteed majority in the Congress of People’s Deputies, but the commitment made under General Secretary Gorbachev to formally give up the CPSU’s monopoly on power remained official policy. The opposition Liberal Democrats and various Republic nationalist parties remained in place in the Congress, despite predictions by Western propagandists of a rapid return to Stalinism following the forced removal of Gorbachev and his replacement by Yegor Ligachyov [4]. It hadn’t worked out that way, with Ligachyov and Defense Minister Sokolov’s[5] heavy-handed response to the general strike instead provoking a backlash that nearly threatened to split the Union. Back-room deals between the leaders of the Republics and key Politburo members throughout the winter of 1990/91 had seen Sokolov sacked from the government and Ligachyov replaced by a compromise candidate, Kazakh party boss Nursultan Nazarbayev [6].

The turmoil of these changes, coming on top of the economic chaos that Gorbachev had bequeathed the country, left the future more uncertain than Semenov had ever known. Although there had been a merciful roll-back on the worst excesses of Glasnost and Perestroika, the standing of the Communist Party with the public, already low, had been reduced practically to zero by the in-fighting. Everyone now accepted that there could be no return to the old ways, and it seemed that a major shake-up was in the offing, with several factions threatening to split from the Party altogether.

What would that mean for the future of the country? Semenov was due to be elected to the Central Committee during this Congress, but with power increasingly shifting to the government ministries as the leadership attempted to distance itself from the deeply unpopular Communist Party, would such an honour have any meaning in this brave new world? The answer to that question was known, if by anyone, only to those due to take their seats beneath Lenin’s gaze at the top table.

At that the centre of that table was the chair of General Secretary Nazarbayev. Nominally it was the man three places to his right, Defence Minister Gromov, who was the key to Semenov’s fate, as despite NPO Energia coming under the authority of the Ministry of General Machine Building, the Defence Ministry remained the main driving force behind the Soviet space programme. Since the removal of Gorbachev, the limited resources of the military had been mainly focused on combating terrorism in the Baltic States and the Caucasus (it was never referred to as civil war). Despite the freeing of manpower from the disengagement from Afghanistan - with the new Defence Minister having famously been the last Soviet soldier to leave that god-forsaken country - and the planned draw-down of forces from East Germany and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact, military costs were still out-running what resources the stumbling Soviet economy could provide. That meant that any expenditure not deemed vital to the national interest was a candidate for being excised – and Semenov’s Energia/Buran complex was a fat, tempting target.

However, the General Secretary added a new factor. The space industry was important to the former head of the Kazakh party, and the Buran programme in particular had seen large quantities of money transferred to the central asian Republic [7]. Continuing Soviet achievements in space were also helping to soften the impact of Soviet decline on the ground, giving a fig-leaf of credibility to public claims that the USSR remained a superpower. With Nazarbayev’s quiet backing the Minister of General Machine Building, Oleg Shishkin, had so far been able to defend the shuttle and its giant launcher from the hawks - but at a high cost. The Soviet Union’s flagship Mir space station was left operating with a two-man skeleton crew, her last two modules grounded until funding could be found to complete them. [8] The Defence Ministry’s cancellation of the Oktant missile defence payload had sucked away funds for the TKM-O module [9], whilst the last of the 77K modules, an Earth resources lab[10], had barely begun construction. As for the giant Energia-launched Mir-2 successor-station, code-named 180GK, that the Council of Ministers had approved just before Gorbachev’s removal - forget it.

For Buran itself, work on the two advanced second-series orbiters, spacecraft 2.01 and 2.02, had been halted shortly after the coup, with all resources ploughed into getting vehicle 1.02 ready for her first flight - only the second of the overall programme. That mission was now officially scheduled for the coming December, a year later than originally planned, but Semenov knew that even this was no longer realistic. The orbiter needed at least another year of work, assuming his resources were not cut further.

It wasn’t all gloom though, Semenov had to admit. Despite the chill in relations under Ligachyov, Nazarbayev’s appointment had led to a renewed rapprochement with the West. US President George Bush, desperate to avoid the chaotic “Yugoslavia with nukes” scenario that a collapse of the USSR would entail, had thrown his support behind Nazarbayev, and this was opening up new possibilities for the Soviet space programme. Already there had been considerable interest from the US and others at the possibility of flying Western payloads on Soviet Proton and Zenit rockets, which the Soviet design bureaux were offering at far lower prices than the Europeans or Americans could match. When Energia-M came online next year it would allow Semenov to offer ride-share missions to three or even four satellites at a time, allowing the costs to be split and - more importantly to the Energia boss - preserving the skills and facilities needed to support Buran [11]. There had even been quiet inquiries from US companies in the possibility of purchasing copies of the Soviet staged-combustion rocket engines. The Foreign and Defence Ministries weren’t keen on the idea of selling to the West one of the few military-related products in which the USSR enjoyed a clear technological lead, but the need for hard currency was slowly overcoming the ideological and strategic objections. Besides, thought Semenov, Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh owes me one after letting the British off the hook for the cost of Sharman’s flight. [12]

Contemplating these options for raising money through foreign sales in the global marketplace, Semenov took his seat as the sound of gavel on wood announced the start of the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.


[1] IOTL Matthias Rust went on to land his Cessna in Red Square, flying under the nose of Soviet air defences.

[2] Incredibly, this very nearly happened IOTL. The difference here is that instead of making it to a police station soaking wet and freezing cold, Yeltsin breaths in when he should have breathed out (perhaps as a result of not gasping in surprise two years previously on hearing of a young German man landing in the heart of Moscow) and gets a lung-full of the Moscow River at an inopportune moment. Without Yeltsin’s later determination to expand his own power base as President of Russia by undercutting the authority of the central Soviet government, there is a reduced chance for Russia to secede and rip the heart from the Union.

[3] IOTL the 28th Congress, attended by four thousand delegates, was called by Gorbachev in June 1990, a year earlier than the usual 5-year rotation. ITTL, the powers-that-be are occupied with other matters throughout 1990 and so stick to the regular schedule.

[4] Yegor Kuzmich Ligachyov was a member of the Politburo and Second Secretary (i.e. second in command) of the Party. He started as an ally of Gorbachev but gradually came to oppose many of his policies, including glasnost and perestroika (which he’d helped to set up). He was a particular enemy of Boris Yeltsin, famously (though apocryphally) telling him at the 19th Party Conference in June 1988 “Boris, you’re wrong!”.

IOTL Ligachyov was often called a hard-liner, but resisted this label. ITTL he has a powerful ally in the Politburo who solicits his support in forcing the resignation of Gorbachev.

[5] Because of Rust’s untimely demise, Gorbachev lacked the excuse he needed to fire his troublesome Defence Minister, Sergey Sokolov. ITTL, Sokolov is able to mobilise the hardliners (including Ligachyov) against the threat Gorbachev poses to the Union earlier than happened IOTL, striking just before planned elections in the Republics in February 1990.

[6] IOTL Nursultan Nazarbayev was the Chair of the Kazakh Communist Party (later Chair of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet and President of the Kazakh SSR) and a candidate for Soviet Vice President when Gorbachev created the post in December 1990 - a role which he turned down. He had a foot in both camps during the discussions between the leaders of the four nuclear republics (those in which Soviet nuclear weapons were stationed: Russia, Beylorussia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) on the post-coup evolution of the USSR into the CIS, and it was unclear for a while whether he’d side with Yeltsin or Gorbachev. IOTL, he acquiesced to Yeltsin’s and Ukrainian President Kravchuk’s plans for a loose confederation with no effective centre. He went on to become president of independent Kazakhstan, the position he holds to this day, having “won” elections in 1991, 1999, 2005, 2011 and 2015, never gaining less than 80% of the vote.

ITTL, with the ouster of Gorbachev playing out over a longer period and in a different way, before elections in the Republics can create alternative sources of democratic legitimacy compared to the Centre, with a weaker push for Russian independence, and no precipitous referendum on full independence for Ukraine, Nazarbayev finds himself in a position to make a play for the top job rather than remain the biggest fish in the Kazakh pond. He will re-shape the USSR into a looser union (nationalism in the Republics has to be appeased or it will tear the nation apart), but with the Centre retaining some direct taxation powers as well as exclusive control of foreign relations, the armed forces, the KGB and (importantly for this timeline) the space programme.

[7] IOTL and ITTL “Buran” was the name given to the overall shuttle-plus-heavy-rocket programme at its inception. The rocket part was given the name “Energia” just a few days before its first launch in 1987. Similarly, the first shuttle orbiter was named “Buran” shortly before launch, having previously been photographed with the name “Baikal” painted on its side. Here, Semenov is using “Buran” in its original sense, to refer to the overall programme.

[8] In fact Russian practice is to refer to inanimate objects, including ships and aircraft, with the masculine pronoun, but as a native English speaker that just reads wrong to me. I’ve therefore decided to stick to the English use of “her”, “she”, etc., when referring to the spacecraft in this timeline. Just imagine it’s translated from masculine in the original Russian.

[9] OTL Spektr

[10] OTL Priroda

[11] IOTL, Energia-M was put up against proposals from KB Yuzhnoe (builder of Zenit) and KB Salyut (builder of Proton) in a public competition for the USSR’s next heavy launcher. Energia-M won, but was later cancelled by the Russian government. ITTL, there was no tender - Energia-M was simply anointed the successor.

[12] Yes, Britain’s first (or is that zeroth?) astronaut still gets her flight.
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So, welcome to my second timeline! (For those interested in my first, may I direct you to Kolyma’s Shadow).

The genesis of this timeline was a desire on my part to create some 3D models to see what some of the plans I remember reading about in the early 1990s might have looked like had they been followed through. As I got into researching for the models, I decided it would be cool to do a series of images with them showing various typical missions. To keep it interesting I thought I should probably sketch out a brief, summary timeline, just to put the images in context.

One year after planting that bean, here’s the beanstalk!

So the first thing to admit is, yes, the set-up is incredibly contrived. Unlike Kolyma’s Shadow, where I came up with the PoD then largely just followed through, this time I let the destination determine the first steps. This meant some things pretty much had to happen, even if they are rather unlikely (at least based on my understanding of the research I did). However, I hope it is at least within the bounds of what might be considered to be not entirely implausible.

The initial PoD is identical to that used in the book “Prime Minister Boris... and other things that never happened”, though I have changed the timing and the subsequent details. Future posts will aim to stick to much firmer ground, and will focus far more on technical details than political developments, so I hope you’ll forgive my initial loading of the die.

The plan is to post a couple of updates per week, taking the time to answer comments in between (though you’ll note this time I’ve opted to include footnotes, so you’ll find more answers in the posts themselves than was the case with Kolyma). The entire timeline has been fully drafted, beginning to end, so I’m unlikely to entertain major deviations from the plot unless someone points out something supremely improbable.

So grab a warm coat and furry ushanka hat, then sit back and enjoy as The Snow Flies!
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Yes, comrade Nixonshead, save the Soviet Union!

Honestly, this was not the TL I'd been expecting, but it's a very pleasant surprise! Trying to save the spaceflight dreams of the early 90s is a tough order, what with the cold war crumbling and budgets collapsing everywhere. Very curious to see the further contrivances you'll cook up to make this all possible. I also still very much want a part 5 of Kolyma's Shadow, as you left it on some big clifhangers, but that can wait for now.

So, what can we expect? Well, probably Hermes, Shuttle-C and Freedom on the side of the west, and Mir-2, big Energia rockets and some form of Chinese cooperation (?) on the Soviet side. But I'll only be glad to be wrong!
Very interesting work. Seems the Balts might go flying off, but Ukraine will remain in the USSR.

I like the TASS article--is it an OTL translation, or your own work?

Pity that the Space Exploration Initiative was already dead by now--Energia would be of great utility in a joint Moon mission.
Archibald said:


TheBatafour said:
Yes, comrade Nixonshead, save the Soviet Union!

Honestly, this was not the TL I'd been expecting, but it's a very pleasant surprise! Trying to save the spaceflight dreams of the early 90s is a tough order, what with the cold war crumbling and budgets collapsing everywhere. Very curious to see the further contrivances you'll cook up to make this all possible. I also still very much want a part 5 of Kolyma's Shadow, as you left it on some big clifhangers, but that can wait for now.

So, what can we expect? Well, probably Hermes, Shuttle-C and Freedom on the side of the west, and Mir-2, big Energia rockets and some form of Chinese cooperation (?) on the Soviet side. But I'll only be glad to be wrong!

Thanks for the enthusiasm! To have Buran continue, I really needed the doubling of GDP that came with having the USSR survive (the Russian SFSR comprising around 50% of the Soviet economy), although you’ll note it will not just be business as usual (which in any case would pretty much guarantee collapse). As for non-Soviet developments, we will be hearing about them, but not in so much detail - the focus is firmly on the Soviet shuttle programme (hey, I have to save something for spin-off timelines!).

O'Alexis 89 said:
Spread the word! The Buran flies! :D


Polish Eagle said:
Very interesting work. Seems the Balts might go flying off, but Ukraine will remain in the USSR.

The rest of the timeline is intentionally vague on further political developments where they don’t directly affect the space programme, so the fate of the Baltic Republics is ambiguous. But the USSR without Ukraine (and, more to the point, Energia without Ukraine!) is pretty much inconceivable, so they’re definitely staying in the fold.

Polish Eagle said:
I like the TASS article--is it an OTL translation, or your own work?

This is indeed the real press release from Buran’s one-and-only OTL flight in 1988 (which is identical to the first mission ITTL). It’s been run through Google Translate from the original Russian, then cleaned up by me. I found it surprising that the bombastic “brilliant victory” language survived that far into the era of perestroika.

Polish Eagle said:
Pity that the Space Exploration Initiative was already dead by now--Energia would be of great utility in a joint Moon mission.

It should be well suited as Glushko basically designed Energia as the core of a Moon rocket, strapping a shuttle to the side just to get the funding! As mentioned in the opening post, the possibilities for US-Soviet cooperation are being explored ITTL, and will crop up in later posts. However, be warned that I have used up my supply of Handwavium in keeping the USSR a going concern. From here on in, hard economics and realpolitik will be as much of an influence as the laws of physics.

Usili said:
Very nice so far. Can't wait to see what else comes from this…

Thanks! The next chapter will be up later in the week.
Mission 2K1: Burya-Soyuz
Mission 2K1: Burya-Soyuz, November 1992


Preparations for launch

The April 1990 decision to sacrifice work on the second series of shuttle orbiters in order to expedite the completion of the second flight model (airframe 1.02 or 2K) was not enough to meet the original planned launch date of December 1990 for the second Soviet shuttle mission. As the economic and political situation grew worse, work on outfitting spacecraft 2K (at this point still referred to by the generic nickname “Ptichka” or “Little Bird”) slowed to a crawl, as the nation was gripped by a general strike that meant needed components and personnel from the various Republics of the Union failed to arrive on schedule at the Orbiter Assembly and Test Facility (MIK OK) at Baikonur.

The main body of the 2K orbiter had been delivered to the cosmodrome on the back of the VM-T “Atlant” carrier aircraft on 23rd March 1983, but the modified “Bison” bomber did not have the payload capability to transport fully outfitted shuttles, meaning that most of the work to install internal systems, as well as the wings, vertical stabiliser and the 38,800 tiles of the thermal protection system, had to be done on-site at Baikonur. This work was a lot more time consuming than had been the case for the first orbiter, 1K “Buran”, as that first mission had omitted many of the critical systems that would be needed for the more ambitious 2K1 flight. Items required for orbiter 2K that had been left out of Buran included: the actuators for the payload bay doors; a fully functioning active thermal control system; the critical Docking Module with its APAS-89 latching system; fuel cells; and a partially working life support system.

In March 1992, orbiter 2K was briefly mated to the 4M Energia core stage and strap-ons and rolled out to Pad 37 at Baikonur’s Site 211 for a series of pad integration tests, followed by further testing of the airframe on the Dynamic Test Stand. Despite this apparent progress however, the orbiter was still far from ready for its flight, with large areas of the spaceplane’s surface still missing its protective tiles. After three weeks of tests, the stack was rolled back to the Rocket Assembly and Test Facility (MIK RN) and the 2K orbiter was removed from the launch vehicle.

September 1992 found spacecraft 2K back in the MIK RN and finally being mated to the flight-rated Energia vehicle 3L. Originally the mission had been slated to use the 2L rocket, but as 2K1 was repeatedly delayed it was decided to use the more advanced 3L vehicle, the RD-0120 engines of which were certified for a total of 2,000 seconds firing compared to the 1,670 seconds rating for 2L. After more than four years in storage, engineers at NPO Energia and KB Energomash wished to perform more extensive tests of the launch vehicle, and the uprated engines of vehicle 3L allowed for an additional firing test at the UKSS test stand in June 1992, confirming the rocket’s readiness. Energia 2L was reallocated for use on an unmanned launch in the Energia-T configuration scheduled for some time in 1993.

Although still not outfitted with all of the systems that would be needed for a manned launch, the 2K orbiter was deemed ready for this second unmanned take-off and the complex mission that would follow. The orbiter also, finally, had an official name: when the 2K/3L stack was rolled to the Assembly and Fueling Facility (MZK) for final preparations, the name “Burya” (Storm) was painted on its side.

The assembled stack remained in the MZK throughout October and November 1992 as the finishing touches were added. This included the loading of hazardous items such as the sintin fuel for the propulsion system, hydrazine and nitrogen for the Auxiliary Power Units (VSUs), ammonia for the thermal control system, and the Energia strap-on boosters’ solid propellant separation charges. Cryogenic liquid oxygen for the orbiter’s propulsion system, fuel cells and life-support would be loaded on the launch pad at the same time as fueling of the Energia carrier rocket.

Also added in the MZK was the payload for Burya’s mission. In addition to the pressurised 37KB instrumentation module (the very same module that had flown four years earlier on Buran), Burya was also loaded with the Docking Module (SM) that would enable it to link up with a specialised “Rescue Soyuz”, fitted with an APAS-89 androgynous docking port in place of the usual SSVP probe.

With consumables and payload on-board, Energia and Burya were mated to the Blok-Ya launch table adapter and on 4th December 1992 the stack was hauled out of the MZK horizontally aboard a TAU crawler transporter that had originally been built to serve the ill-fated N-1 moon rocket. The launch pad on which the vehicle was erected, Pad 37 of the “Raskat” (“peal of thunder”) complex, had also been constructed for N-1, although it had been heavily modified for use by the Soviet shuttle. Future manned launches would make use of the neighbouring Pad 38, the shortened rotating service structure of which would give better clearance for the pilots’ ejection seats in the event of a launch pad abort. For the unmanned launch of mission 2K1, Burya would use the same Pad 37 that had been the departure point for her sister-ship Buran four years earlier.

Preparing for mission 2K1 were commander/pilot Aleksey Boroday and engineer Eduard Stepanov, whose mission would be to rendezvous with Burya and dock with the shuttle in their own specially modified Soyuz TM-16 spacecraft. Stepanov was part of the cosmonaut corps based at the Cosmonaut Training Centre (TsPK) in Star City, and would be responsible for testing Burya’s on-board systems and experiments. Boroday in contrast was an Air Force test pilot from the elite State Red Banner Scientific Test Institute (GKNII), one of a cadre of military test pilots assigned to the shuttle programme. Boroday had flown six missions in the BTS-002 “Buran analogue” aircraft as part of the shuttle’s approach and landing test programme, and had flown a week long mission to Mir as the third crew member aboard Soyuz TM-13 in October 1991.[1] His primary role would be to test the on-orbit manual flight controls of the shuttle orbiter.

As Energia/Burya was rolled out to Pad 37, Boroday and Stepanov were already at Baikonur as their own Soyuz rocket was assembled at the MIK 2-1 facility. Before the loading of Energia’s propellants had started, the two cosmonauts ascended Pad 37’s service tower and entered Burya on 23rd November for a final ‘tour’ of the orbiter, familiarising themselves with the launch state of the spacecraft.

Launch of Burya

Fuelling operations for the 3L launcher began in the early hours of Tuesday 24th November and was completed by 9am local time. Fifteen minutes later the loading of liquid oxygen into the orbiter’s ODU propulsion system was completed. Despite a certain unfamiliarity with launch day procedures after more than four years with no Energia launches, the ground crews performed well and the countdown progressed more smoothly than had been the case for Buran’s 1K1 mission in 1988. The hydrogen-oxygen RD-0120 engines were started right on schedule at T-9.9 seconds, followed four seconds later by the kerolox RD-170 rockets of the four Blok-A strap-on boosters. Lift-off came precisely as scheduled at 06:20 UTC (09:20 Moscow time, 12:20 local time), as Energia 3L and her shuttle orbiter payload cleared the tower and began her pre-programmed roll manoeuvre. This marked three out of three successful lift-offs for the super-heavy Soviet rocket.

Two minutes and twenty-six seconds into the flight, the four Blok-A boosters separated from the rocket core in two linked pairs. Shortly after separation, each pair split into its individual boosters. In a difference from the two previous Energia launches, once fully separated each of the 72-tonne boosters deployed parachutes fore and aft to slow their descent. A set of soft landing engines and shock absorbers were intended to ensure a survivable touch-down, after which the boosters would be recovered by pairs of Mi-26 helicopters for eventual re-use. However, on this first attempt the aft parachutes of one of the boosters failed to deploy, whilst a second booster suffered a malfunction of the landing rockets, resulting in both boosters being destroyed on impact. The two remaining boosters did touch down successfully some 425 km from Baikonur, but their recovery proved to be more difficult than anticipated, and neither was destined to be re-used for a launch.


As the boosters heading back to the ground, Burya continued to ride the 3L core rocket towards space. The RD-0120 engines shut down at T+7m47s, leaving the stack in a sub-orbital trajectory with an apogee of 155km. Following separation from the core, Burya fired one of her two DOM engines to boost her speed by 67m/s. Half an hour later, the DOM was used once again to place Burya into her initial circular orbit at an altitude of around 250km.

Up until this point, Burya’s flight had been almost identical to that of Buran, but with orbit achieved the differences between the two missions became more pronounced. Almost as soon as the DOM circularisation burn had completed, Burya automatically began opening her cargo bay doors, exposing the large radiators on their inner surface to the cold of space. This had been unnecessary on the brief, two-orbit 1K1 mission (and Buran had in any case not yet been fitted with functioning radiators), but the much longer and more capable 2K1 mission put greater thermal demands on the orbiter.

Shortly after opening the payload bay, the Stellar-Solar Instrument (ZSP) attached to the front wall of the payload bay opened its own doors, allowing the star trackers to get a fix and update the inertial measurement units of the Gyro-Stabilised Platforms (GSPs). Next to deploy were the twin ONA antennas, with ONA-I swinging out from the aft wall of the payload bay, whilst ONA-II deployed from a hatch on the belly of the orbiter. These were to provide SHF communications via the Cosmos 2054 (Altair 14L) geostationary satellite. Originally one of three satellites of the Luch/Altair system, by the end of 1992 only Cosmos 2054 remained operational at 16 degrees West, giving coverage over the Atlantic Ocean for the relay of real-time telemetry to ground control at TsUP in Kaliningrad [2]. This was especially critical as the active fleet of Soviet control and tracking ships had been reduced since Buran’s maiden flight, with only one vessel, Marshal Nedelin, being deployed to support 2K1 with coverage over the western Pacific Ocean via Burya’s omni-directional VHF and UHF transmitters. This left a brief gap in radio contact with the shuttle as it passed over the eastern Pacific and the Americas. With SHF telemetry contact established, TsUP were able to confirm that Burya was in good shape on its initial orbits.

Launch of Soyuz TM-16

A day after Burya’s arrival on orbit, Baikonur was preparing for the next launch in support of mission 2K1. At Launch Complex 1 (also known as “Gagarin’s Start”), a Soyuz U2 rocket was undergoing final preparations, with Soyuz TM-16 safely in place beneath the payload shroud. As the 66th manned Soviet space mission to use a derivative of the venerable R-7 missile, preparations for the mission had proceeded far more smoothly than for the giant Energia rocket, and cosmonauts Aleksey Boroday and Eduard Stepanov duly launched at 13:12 UTC (16:12 Moscow time, 19:12 local time) on 26th November. Unusually for a Soyuz mission during the years of strained budgets in the early 1990s, there was no paying “guest cosmonaut” in the Soyuz’s third seat. It was one more reminder that this mission was far from usual.


With Burya’s orbit well established by the Scientific Measurement Station (NIP) network of Soviet space tracking stations, Soyuz TM-16 commenced a standard two-day approach as it would were it on a normal mission to the Mir space station. This task was simplified by the fact that Burya’s orbit was in the same plane and altitude as Mir’s, a choice that had been made in order to allow Boroday and Stepanov to continue on to the station after undocking from the shuttle. It was therefore mid-morning on 30th November when the modified Soyuz approached to within visual range of the Burya orbiter.

Initial reports from the cosmonauts indicated that Burya was in good shape. Approaching from beneath to within 200m, the Soyuz made a slow circle of the shuttle, paying particular attention to the status of the thermal protection tiles and that the cargo bay doors, ONA-II hatch and radiators had all deployed smoothly. Stepanov, who was taking photographs with a telescopic lense, noted three missing tiles on the shuttle’s body, two of which were on the spaceplane’s belly, with several others damaged. Mission controllers were not happy at this news, but recalled that Buran had lost seven tiles on her maiden flight, whilst the American Columbia had lost sixteen tiles on her first mission, and in neither case had there been mission-critical damage.


With their inspection complete, Soyuz TM-16 was lined up with Burya’s APAS-89 docking port and began a slow automated approach and docking manoeuvre. All systems performed as expected, and the Soyuz came into contact with Burya at 12:48 Moscow time on 28th November, with hard-dock following a few minutes later.


Operations with Soyuz TM-16

In the hour following docking, Boroday and Stepanov performed leak checks before equalising the pressure between Soyuz and Burya’s Docking Module (SM). Almost one and a half hours after docking, with all checks satisfactory, Aleksey Boroday opened the hatch and entered the SM for the first time. With Eduard Stepanov remaining aboard Soyuz in case of emergency, Boroday proceded through the SM and entered Burya’s Habitation Compartment (BO, analogous to the Mid Deck of US shuttle orbiters) via its internal airlock. Designed to hold seats for up to six crewmembers, as well as life support and crew comfort facilities, for the 2K1 test flight the BO had been left bare. Boroday therefore spent just long enough in the compartment to confirm air pressure and temperature reported on the 17M212 instrument panel were within norms, before passing through the left interdeck opening to the Command Compartment (KO, or flight deck).

The KO was in a similarly stripped-down condition, with only the commander’s seat installed in the cabin. In place of the co-pilot’s seat, a TV camera was bolted to the floor and positioned to look through the forward cabin window. This was similar to the system that had been installed in the Commander’s position for Buran’s first flight in 1988 and would provide a pilot’s eye view of Burya’s planned unmanned reentry and landing operations.

On his initial entry, Boroday’s first priority was to establish communications with TsUP via Burya’s on-board air-to-ground systems. This he accomplished via both the VHF line-of-sight system and the twin SHF ONA antennas via Cosmos 2054.

Boroday was joined by Stepanov aboard Burya one hour after entering the ship, and together they ran through a power-up and check-out sequence of the shuttle’s on-board systems. Checks of the 37KB test payload were made via the RM-6 console at the rear of the KO, with Boroday confirming the status of the single On-Board Manipulator System (SBM) robot arm via the RM-5 console beneath the rear port window, looking out onto the payload bay. Nominally intended to carry two robot arms, funding restrictions had meant that only one SRM could be brought to flight-ready status for the 2K1 mission.

The two cosmonauts continued to run systems tests throughout the day, before retiring to their Soyuz spacecraft for the evening. Although they would have preferred to sleep in Burya’s roomy Habitation Compartment, TsUP wanted to ensure the crew could make a quick escape should anything go wrong in the night, not to mention the lack of galley and toilet facilities aboard the shuttle.

The next day, 29th November, saw the crew re-enter Burya and run a series of tests with the SBM robot arm. The arm was unlatched from its hold-down position and carefully extended outwards from the shuttle, before the upper arm was brought back towards the fuselage. The arm was then returned to its storage position under automatic control, whilst Stepanov carefully monitored the operation to ensure that there was no chance of the arm damaging their Soyuz spacecraft. With the arm re-stowed, Boroday took his place in the Commander’s seat and performed a number of minor attitude adjustments under manual control, verifying his ability to pilot the space plane. Performance was reported as being crisp, despite the off-axis load of Soyuz.


Soyuz TM-16 Undocks

Boroday and Stepanov entered Burya for the last time on the morning of 30th November. After performing final checks and monitoring the loading of the autonomous return software into the shuttle’s Biser-4 computers, they safed Burya’s systems and returned to Soyuz TM-16, sealing the SM hatch behind them. Undocking occurred at 09:29 Moscow time, and after one final inspection pass around the orbiter the two cosmonauts departed Burya, heading for a rendezvous with the Mir space station the next day. Their mission to Mir saw the first use of the Kristall module’s APAS-89 docking port, as Soyuz TM-16 lacked the probe-and-drogue interface required to use one of the station’s axial ports. This also marked only the second time a crew had visited three different spacecraft during a mission, following Soyuz T-15 mission in 1986, when Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Solovyov transferred from Mir to Salyut-7 and back again. Boroday and Stepanov relieved the crew of Soyuz TM-15, Anatoly Solovyev and Sergei Avdeyev, as the resident crew of Mir Expedition EO-13 for the next six months.



Burya returns

Following the departure of the crew, ground control at TsUP began uplinking commands to prepare Burya for its re-entry. With the GSP inertial guidance platforms confirmed to be correctly aligned, the two ONA antennas were retracted and the payload bay doors were closed and locked.

At 10:14 Moscow time on 30th November, as Burya passed over the south Pacific, the DOM orbital manoeuvring engines were fired and the shuttle began its descent into the upper atmosphere. As it passed below the 100km Karman Line at a speed of Mach 28, the three Auxilliary Power Units were activated, beginning Burya’s transformation from a rocket-propelled spacecraft to an aerodynamically controlled aircraft. Burya’s automatic systems kept the shuttle at an angle of attack of 39 degrees as it decelerated to Mach 10, performing a number of roll reversal manouevres to bleed off energy as temperatures on the thermal protection system reached as high as 1 650 degrees Celsius.

Burya entered its Pre-Landing Manoeuvring phase at an altitude of 20km, reducing its angle of attack to 10 degrees and reducing speed to Mach 2 as it lined up on the Yubileynyy runway at Baikonur. Consideration had been given to landing Burya at the back-up landing facility at Simferopol in the Crimea, but with the single Mriya transport plane declared non-flightworthy due to insufficient funding to complete planned maintenance, it would have been several months before the shuttle could have been returned to Baikonur.

By this point Burya was under escort by cosmonaut-pilot Igor Volk in the Mig-25 SOTN chase plane. As the shuttle approached the point at which it would select which of the two Heading Alignment Cylinders (TsVK) it would use for final approach, Volk backed off from the spaceplane: this was the point at which Buran had startled its controllers by (correctly, as it turned out) snapping over to the northern Cylinder rather than taking the expected southern path. Burya however proved more predictable than her sister ship, selecting the southern Cylinder for a final energy-reducing turn before exiting the TsVK 14.5 km from the runway for the final descent.

Without the jet engines planned for later missions, Burya now entered a 19 degree glideslope towards the Yubileynyy runway before performing a pre-flare manoeuvre at 450m altitude to reduce the slope to 2 degrees. The landing gear were deployed and Burya made a final flare at 20m before settling onto the runway 5m left of the centreline at a speed of 260km/h. Burya immediately deployed its braking parachute and activated the main brakes on the landing gear, bringing the spaceplane to a halt 1 700m from the touchdown point. Wheels stopped at 14:06 local time, bringing mission 2K1 to a successful conclusion.



[1] Boroday takes the place of Toktar Aubakirov on Soyuz TM-13 in order to get a spaceflight under his belt, in keeping with the Soviet tradition since Soyuz-11 that a mission commander must always have spaceflight experience. IOTL Aubakirov and Austrian guest cosmonaut Franz Viehböck spent seven days aboard Mir before returning with Soyuz TM-12, whilst Soyuz TM-13 commander Aleksandr Volkov remained on board Mir. Aubakirov, a Kazakh, had been included as part of a deal between the Soviet central government and increasingly autonomous Kazakh SSR, and had not been trained for a long duration mission. ITTL, butterflies on internal Soviet politics mean the deal never takes place.

[2] IOTL Kaliningrad, a suburb of Moscow, was renamed Korolev in 1996, both honouring the former Chief Designer and removing the chance for confusion with the city formally known as Königsberg. At this point ITTL the name change has not happened.


The technical details in this section (and indeed the entire timeline) leaned heavily upon the indispensable “Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle” by Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis. I cannot recommend it highly enough as the best English language description I’ve come across of Buran’s development.

Also of great use was the website. I recommend using the Russian language version of the website (with GoogleTranslate helping as appropriate for non-Russian speakers like me), as it has far more details than the English site, as well as excellent CGI models of the shuttle and associated vehicles far surpassing the level of accuracy and detail I could muster.
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The art is absolutely knocks-my-socks-off gorgeous. Which is all the more impressive since I don't find either the Buran orbiter or the Soyuz capsule pretty designs!

Also find the PoD and the situation of the Soviet space program to be novel and quite believable so far.

This timeline is off to a great start. I've long been fascinated with Buran and Energia, and I wish they could have remained in service in OTL.

some background Information

Mathias Rust
In 1987 he was 18 years old and just made his pilot's license.
on May 13, he enter a flight plan for "round trip over North Sea" at Hamburg Airport and took off in a Cessna 172 P
by transit stop at Uetersen Airport he build out back seats and replacing them with auxiliary fuel tanks.
Then flew to Faroe Island, then visit Iceland, were he visit the Hofdi House were Reagan and Gorbachev had unsuccessful talks.
He flew back over Norway, then over to Helsinki Finland.

May 28, here he enter a flight plan for Stockholm, But after Takeoff he turned communication off and flew East into Soviet Airspace !
As he reach border of Soviet-union at Estonia, the Air Defense Radar notice him.
as Rust failed to answer a IFF signal, three SAM devision track him with Rockets, but failed to obtain permission to shoot him down.
in mean All air defenses were brought to readiness and two interceptors were sent to investigate.
The Pilots report the aircraft is a white sport plane similar to a Yakovlev Yak-12.
suddly the Air Defense Radar lost track of Cessna 172 P near city of Gdov, here Rust made transit stop to change his clothes.
from here Rust flew so low that Air Defense Radar notice him only sporadic, next to that they hand full with Air force maneuvers.
At 7:00 PM he is see over downtown Moscow heading toward Red Square,
He circle the place to find landing spot and manage to land on St. Basil's bridge and drive his plane to save stop at St. Basil's Cathedral.
Lucky for him the wires for Trolleybus were removed on Bridge do maintenance
it took 2 hours until he was Arrested by Moscow metropolitan police (not KGB or Military)


This youthful escapade took the Soviet not light
Rust had deeply humiliated the Soviet military.
Muscovites jokingly referred red square as airport terminal Sheremetyevo-3
one histerical reaction at KGB was: What if he hab nuclear bomb on that plane ?

Heads had to roll in ranks of Red Army
Gorbachev took the chance to remove many of the strongest opponents to his reforms.
Like Minister of Defense Sergei Sokolov and the head of the Soviet Air Defence Forces Alexander Koldunov were dismissed, along with three hundreds other officers.
Those men would have play important key figures in putsch against Gorbachev in 1991
A Soviet Shuttle TL? You've got me hooked already! :D

That detail about the parachute/retro rocket recovery of the Energia LRBs I certainly noticed. IIRC that was omitted from the 1987 and 1988 flights on account of where the monitoring equipment had been installed.

Another thing I recall is that while Energia/Buran had been accused of being a copy of STS IOTL, it came as a result of checking several different designs and concluding that the STS design was the optimal form for such a system. Though with clear differences due to their differing directions with regards to specifics of spaceflight. Hence LRBs.

Aesthetically, I do prefer the Soviet Design even though the US had the money to make such a system work as needed.

And a clever gambit on Glushko's part with it too. By declaring (to the best of my knowledge) that while reusable LOX/LH2 Engines were outside of the Soviet Technical Capability, while Expendable Engines could be made - forcing their placement on the Core Stage - he ensured that with it, they'd have their own Superbooster of which Buran (and now Burya) are payloads of.
Energia a copy of US Space Shuttle?
HA !
Energia war far better Concept compaire the Shuttle
While NASA fight for Shuttle-c and lost
Energia already Made a Cargo flight
This Launch vehicle offerts various Option to Launch payloads
As Energia around 100 metric tons
One of it's booster can fly as Zenit rocket with 15 metric Tons
While it's zenit Second Stage could use as thrid Stage to get Energia payload into higher Orbit
Ans Energia-M could Bring 40 metric into Orbit.
If you use that Core Stage als thrid Stage on Energia, you can bring
20 metric Tons to GEO or 50 metric Tons to Moon Venus or Mars.

There only One big Problem
I wonder will ESA team up with Soviet MoM in 1990s ?
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How do you make these pictures? Buran, space station and soyuz look like in Kerbal Space Program but what about others.

Naturally, subscribed.
You finally got this TL off the ground!

See what I did there? ;)

Of course I will subscribe so as to boldly go along with you where no comrade has gone before!

Visually STS & Energia/Buran are quite similar which is where the accusation came from, in spite of the clear differences that exist beneath the surface - as has been mentioned already.

IOTL Shuttle-C failed IMHO since it demanded the development of a new Cargo Pod with the SSME Engines installed to be expended, whereas Energia-T only needed a Cargo Pod thanks to the placement of the engines on the Core Stage. ITTL, it's not inconceivable that Shuttle-C gets at the very least advanced studies and serious consideration for development for the surreal(?) situation of the US attempting to keep parity with the Soviet Union in this regard.

The smaller Energia-M IIRC could manage: 34,000 Kg to LEO; 14,000 Kg to GTO, 12,000 Kg to TLI, & 9,500 Kg to TVI/TMI.

With numbers like that, the ability to carry two 6,000 Kg Payloads to GTO could well be the Energia-M's biggest selling point, as at this point, I'm not sure there are any others that can manage close to that. I know the OTL Ariane 4 could do little better than 4,800 Kg to GTO.

Speaking of. How is this going to affect Ariane 5 and Hermes Development? The former I definitely see still being made. The latter? 1-in-3 chance at best IMHO.
There were some proposal from soviets/russians to ESA for a join Venture on Hermes

One replace the Ariane 5 SRB with two Zenit booster to Launch Ariane Core with Hermes.
Ohter went so far to use Enegia-M to Launch Hermes
And finaly drop Hermes and Buran and Build Medium sized Orbiter for Enegia-M

And ESA Ministers Say "Thank, But NO intresst"
ESA wanted to give jobs to European Aerospace Industry Not the soviet or russians industry.
While the french wanted Independent way into Space with french Hermes
Hell was that Bad surprise for french als Germany stop paying for Hermes
Because they needed the Money for unification of West + East Germany in 1991

I wounder how in this TL will Happen between Soviet and Europe ?
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