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…” 
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.”... 
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 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 . It hadn’t worked out that way, with Ligachyov and Defense Minister Sokolov’s 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 .
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 . 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.  The Defence Ministry’s cancellation of the Oktant missile defence payload had sucked away funds for the TKM-O module , whilst the last of the 77K modules, an Earth resources lab, 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 . 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. 
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.
 IOTL Matthias Rust went on to land his Cessna in Red Square, flying under the nose of Soviet air defences.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 OTL Spektr
 OTL Priroda
 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.
 Yes, Britain’s first (or is that zeroth?) astronaut still gets her flight.