The Snow Flies: A History of the Soviet Space Shuttle

(Original thread can be found here).


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. 


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. 


Mission 2K2: Burya-Mir, February 1994


Defining the mission

Following the success of mission 2K1 there had been calls within the Soviet government to skip the remaining unmanned test flights and to launch the next mission with cosmonauts on board. Although the engineers at the newly-established Soviet Space Agency (Vsesoyuznyy Kosmicheskoye Agentstvo, VKA - literally the “All-Union Space Agency” [1]) and RKK Energia were gaining confidence with their shuttle, there were practical considerations that argued against rushing ahead. Although spacecraft 2K (Burya) had been fitted with a partially functioning life support system for her maiden flight, she was still missing much of the equipment that would be needed for a manned launch. The most critical of these were the ejection seats and related emergency escape equipment, which the Soviets viewed as being absolutely essential for the first manned missions after witnessing the tragedy of Challenger. The pilot’s control console was also missing, and many of the other control stations were not fully connected to their systems. Less glamorous items such as a functioning galley and sanitation facilities would also have to be added.

Work had re-started on outfitting Buran (spacecraft 1K) to a full crewed capability in mid-1992, but the shuttle was still not expected to be ready until the end of 1994 at the earliest. Bringing Burya up to that standard would take a similar amount of time, meaning no manned launch was likely before the start of 1995. With the Supreme Soviet voting to cancel funding for unmanned Energia-T launches in October 1992, and with the cheaper Energia-M suffering more delays, this would mean a more than two-year gap in Energia launches, exacerbating problems in retaining qualified technical staff and keeping the facilities at Baikonur well maintained. These issues had already led to the decision to mothball Pad 37 and the UKSS test stand, leaving Pad 38 as the only complex from which Energia could be launched. Further cuts could result in the aging infrastructure being unable to support the giant rocket at all.

These realities led to the decision in February 1993 to continue the upgrade of Buran for a targeted first manned mission in early 1995, whilst Burya would undergo a minimal post-flight refurbishment for a second unmanned mission in late 1993. Mission 2K2 (Mission 2 of orbiter 2K) would perform the second part of the activities that had originally been intended as part of 2K1: an automated docking with the Mir space station.

Preparations for launch

Following her landing at Baikonur’s Yubileynyy runway on 30th November 1992, Burya first had her propulsion system drained of residual liquid oxygen, with both oxygen and hydrogen then removed from the fuel cells. The spaceplane was next transferred to the Assembly and Fueling Facility (MZK) for the removal of any remaining fuel and other hazardous liquids. The exhausted batteries were also removed, followed by the extraction of the 37KB and docking modules from the payload bay. On 10th December the shuttle was moved from the MZK to the Transfer Bay of the MIK OK Orbiter Assembly and Test Facility, where a crane lifted Burya and carried her to Bay 102 for inspection and renovation of the thermal protection system.

Inspections of Burya’s thermal protection system revealed five tiles missing (compared with seven on Buran’s initial flight), but many more damaged. Some of this appeared to be the result of ice impacts during launch, but most of the damage to tiles on the belly of the orbiter came from plasma jets generated during re-entry by the aerodynamic effects of gaps between the tiles. The US Space Shuttle avoided this problem by laying its belly tiles at an angle to the direction of flight and using a special ‘gap-filler’ material to make them tight, but the Soviet orbiters placed the rows of tiles perpendicular to the nose, relying on an organic felt filler material and precision placement to keep the gaps too small to generate plasma jets. On Buran this had proved mostly successful, but the cut-backs of the early 1990s had evidently led to a reduction in quality control, with Burya showing evidence of five times as many plasma jets compared with Buran.

The replacement of the damaged tiles and inspections of the rest of the thermal protection system were completed by the end of March 1993, but Burya was to remain in Bay 102 until May. This was due to the next area of the MIK OK, the Assembly Bay 103, being occupied by orbiter 1K Buran, which was undergoing installation of its life support system. The prototype orbiter was eventually moved to the MZK for further work, freeing up Bay 103 for Burya, which was then able to undergo systems checks and minor repair work from its flight six months previously. Burya was next moved to Bay 104 for electrical and control system checks in June before proceeding to the anechoic chamber in Bay 105 for radio systems checks. In August 1993 Burya finally left the MIK OK and moved to the MZK (Buran having relocated back to the MIK OK Bay 102 in July) for fueling in preparation for APU and propulsion system test firings at the Site 254 test stand (the stand’s own propellant fueling systems having been decommissioned the previous year as a money saving measure).

Burya was then forced to wait a further two months in the MIK OK as Energia vehicle 4L was put together in the MIK RN. Tensions between the Ukrainian SSR and the Soviet central government over control of the privatisation of state companies (and the money and powers of patronage resulting from their sale to political allies), including OKB Yuzhnoye, had delayed the delivery of the Blok-A booster rockets from their Dnipropetrovsk factory, and so the stacking of vehicle 4L did not start until October 1993. It was not until early December that Burya was finally moved to the MIK RN and joined to her carrier rocket. Once again, the venerable 37KB instrument module and SM docking module were installed in Burya’s payload bay, but this time they were joined by the 1 tonne Fosvich-2 X-ray telescope, which Burya would deliver to Mir and attach to the lateral docking port of the station’s Kristall module.

Other preparations were also underway for the mission. 6th December 1993 had seen the launch of Soyuz TM-18 to the Mir space station carrying cosmonauts Aleksandr Viktorenko, Yury Usachov and Valeri Polyakov. Polyakov was destined to remain aboard Mir for over a year before returning to Earth with Soyuz TM-20 in January 1995, setting a new record for long duration spaceflight. Conversely, Usachov and Viktorenko were part of a standard 6 month expedition (Mir EO-15), and would return home in Soyuz TM-18 in May 1994. Together, this team would be responsible for supporting Burya’s docking to the station and the subsequent test activities. [2] Viktorenko had been selected to command the station during the 2K1 mission specifically for his experience with the shuttle programme, as he had been selected in 1978 as one of the cohort of shuttle cosmonauts from the Cosmonaut Training Centre (TsPK) at Star City. This training, plus his later experience on the Soyuz TM-3 and TM-8 missions to Mir, made him the ideal candidate to assess the performance of the Burya orbiter.

2K2 Launches


The Burya/4L stack was finally towed to Raskat Pad 38 in late January 1994, almost 14 months after the shuttle’s last launch from the neighbouring Pad 37. Despite the increasingly tough budget cutbacks, the ground crews at Baikonur continued to work with dedication and pride, and with the experience of 2K1 under their belts were able to complete launch preparations even faster than in 1992. With no countdown holds, ignition of the Energia core engines came as planned at 08:57 local time (02:57 UTC) on 7th February, with the four Blok-A boosters following on schedule, lifting Energia 4L from the pad at precisely the time needed to intercept Mir’s orbital plane.

Booster separation came two and a half minutes later, but despite all four Blok-A rockets making successful soft-landings downrange, no immediate attempt was made to retrieve them. The necessary recovery forces were no longer available, and with the low launch rate of Energia coming to be accepted, re-use would simply not be economical. Vehicle 4L would be the last Energia to include recovery equipment in the Blok-As, with future launches using the simpler, stripped-down version of the boosters originally developed for Energia-M.

As on all three previous launches, the core stage RD-0120 engines performed flawlessly, delivering its shuttle cargo into a sub-orbital trajectory eight minutes after ignition. Separation of Burya from the booster and the firing of its DOM manoeuvring engines also occurred as planned, and thirty minutes later TsUP controllers were able to confirm Burya was in a stable parking orbit around the Earth.

With the launch and early orbit operations phase of the mission now completed, the Biser-4 computers comprising Burya’s Central Computing System were commanded to load their rendezvous and docking application software into their RAM from the magnetic tapes of the Mass Memory Unit. This was necessary because the limited memory of the Biser-4 units (equivalent to 524 kB of RAM each) meant that it was not possible to run software for all mission phases at once. The new application installation process had been extensively tested on the ground in the OK-KS electrical analogue and in both Burya and Buran in ground tests, and this testing paid off with all four Biser-4 units successfully transitioning to the new software. This done, the orbiter began its two-day chase of the Mir space station.

Rendezvous and Docking with Mir

The initial orbit adjustment to begin rendezvous with Mir was triggered on Burya’s third orbit on the afternoon of 7th February, involving a short, ten-second burn of the starboard DOM manoeuvring engine. Over the the next day several minor adjustments were made with both the DOM and the smaller RSU Reaction Control System engines to match Burya’s orbit with Mir’s. These manoeuvres were performed automatically without ground intervention, guided by the GSP with updated state vectors derived from the RVV Vertical Radio Altimeter and the PRZS Sunrise/Sunset Detection Instrument. Also during this period, the Docking Module was powered up and its docking tunnel, topped by the APAS-89 port, was extended to its full 5.7m height, ensuring the port interface was clear of the top of Burya’s crew cabin. Finally, APAS-89’s guide ring was extended, putting the docking port into its “active” configuration and its supporting Kurs docking antennas swung into their deployed position.

The shuttle’s Mutual Measurement System (SBI), a radar acquired the space station at a range of 40km, guiding Burya into its terminal approach phase at a distance of 15km on the morning of 9th February. Burya initially approached Mir from below, along the Mir-Earth axis, to take advantage of natural gravitational forces in braking the shuttle. As Burya closed to within 1km it repositioned itself ahead of Mir in its orbital track, aligned with the Kristall module’s own APAS-89 port, Kristall having been repositioned by its Lyappa robot arm to Mir’s forward axial X- port a week earlier to provide better clearance and structural strength for the docking attempt. As a safety measure, cosmonauts Viktorenko, Usachov and Polyakov boarded their Soyuz TM-18 spacecraft and undocked from the station. Burya massed as much as the entire Mir space station, meaning any impact could be catastrophic, and so no chances were to be taken on this initial docking attempt. As a final precaution, Kristall’s large solar arrays were stowed for the final approach to avoid damage from Burya’s RSU engine plumes.

As the three cosmonauts watched from a safe distance, with Burya coming to within 30m of the station, the SBI radar suddenly lost lock, and the shuttle automatically reversed its approach to keep clear of the station. The cosmonauts were ordered to return to Mir whilst TsUP controllers analysed the situation, and it was soon determined that the problem was caused by unexpected multipath interference as the radar reflected and re-reflected from the structure of Mir and the shuttle’s own bulky fuselage. This caused the received signal to degrade below the threshold set by mission rules, triggering an abort. Further investigations overnight showed that it should be possible dock safely using just the Kurs system, and preparations were made to repeat the attempt.

The next day, 10th February, with the station’s crew once again watching nervously from a distance in Soyuz TM-18, Burya began its second approach to the station. This time the shuttle continued past the 30m mark to continue closing on Kristall at a rate of 5cm/s. At 07:39 UTC / 10:39 Moscow Time, as the complex overflew the Soviet-Mongolian border, the latches on Burya’s APAS-89 capture ring engaged with their counterparts on Kristall’s docking port. The latches then closed and the capture ring retracted to enable a hard dock. The Burya-Mir complex was now the largest structure ever assembled in orbit.


Operations at Mir

In the hour following docking, Viktorenko and Usachov performed leak checks of the Kristall docking compartment before equalising the pressure between Kristall and Burya’s Docking Module (SM), after which Aleksandr Viktorenko opened the hatch and entered the SM. Whilst Polyakov remained aboard Mir, Viktorenko and Usachov proceeded onwards to Burya’s Habitation Compartment. As on its previous mission, the compartment was in a heavily stripped-down state, although additional life support equipment had been fitted in the lower deck beneath the BO. The flight deck was also largely identical to its 2K1 configuration, although a check of the RM-5 console at the back of the compartment confirmed what the crew had seen from outside, that Burya was now carrying two SBM robot arms instead of the single arm that had flown in 1992.

Viktorenko was quickly able to establish communications with his comrades on Mir and the controllers at TsUP via Burya’s VHF system, but the SHF ONA-I antenna had difficulty in locking onto the Cosmos 2054 relay satellite due to Mir’s bulk obstructing its field of view. Aboard Mir, Polyakov reported fewer problems with the station’s ONA antenna, placed as it was at the opposite end of the complex from Burya, but communications problems would continue to be a feature of shuttle-Mir missions into the future.

With basic communications established between station and shuttle, the two cosmonauts next ran checks on the 37KB test payload and the Fosvich-2 X-ray telescope via the RM-6 console at the rear of the KO, with Viktorenko confirming the readiness of the two On-Board Manipulator System (SBM) robot arms via the RM-5 console beneath the rear port window, looking out onto the payload bay. With all systems showing nominal performance, the two cosmonauts returned to Kristall having spent almost five hours aboard the shuttle orbiter.

The next day, 11th February, saw Burya deliver its payload to Mir. This time Viktorenko entered the shuttle alone whilst Usachov remained on Mir with Polyakov. Once in place at the RM-5 workstation, with good lighting conditions from both bright sunlight and the floods in Burya’s payload bay, Viktorenko powered up the portside SBM arm and initiated a pre-programmed sequence to position the arm’s end effector above the ‘grab point’ of the Fosvich-2 telescope. With Viktorenko monitoring the whole process through both the RM-5 CRT displays and the payload bay window, over the course of fifteen minutes the SBM correctly moved into position, with the cosmonaut guiding the final capture manually using the arm’s video camera. Following a pause as the station passed over the nightside of its orbit, the return of daylight saw Viktorenko command the release of the payload bay latches holding Fosvich-2 in place, then used the arm to swing the telescope up out of the bay and into position in front of Kristall’s second, lateral APAS-89 docking port.

The next phase of the manoeuvre was the most critical. Kristall’s lateral port was attached to the same docking compartment as the port to which Burya was connected, so any damage to the compartment could block Viktorenko’s route back to Mir. An Orlan-DMA spacesuit had been stowed in the Habitation Compartment in case it became necessary for Viktorenko to spacewalk back to the station, but if the shuttle’s SM Docking Module were also damaged it could be necessary to exit via the portside crew access hatch normally only used on the launch pad. With no convenient handrails to aid an EVA, the space suited Viktorenko would have to assemble a deployable pole in the BO and attach it to the interior of the hatch before extending the structure to form a bridge to the safetly of Kristall.

Fortunately, such extreme contingency measures proved unnecessary, as over the next two orbits Viktorenko successfully mated Fosvich-2’s APAS port with that of Kristall. Initial problems with achieving a hard dock were solved by cycling the power to the latches on the Kristall side (basically, switching it off and on again). At the end of the day, with Viktorenko back on board Mir, Usachov was able to open the hatch to Fosvich-2’s small control compartment and begin wiring up power and control connections. Activation of the X-ray telescope would have to await Burya’s departure and the extension once more of Kristall’s solar arrays, but the shuttle’s first operational payload had been safely delivered.


Undocking and landing

Burya was to remain docked at the station for just three days - a limit set due to the shuttle being configured for just eight-days total endurance, plus the need to keep some margin should there be problems with the de-orbit. The hatches between Kristall’s docking compartment and Burya’s SM were sealed late on 11th February, with depressurisation of the two compartments starting on the morning of the 12th. The latches on the station-side APAS-89 interface were retracted at 07:17 UTC on 12th February, as the complex passed over the Ukraine, and Burya fired its DO vernier engines under automatic control to slowly back away from the station. The cosmonauts aboard Mir reported minimal disruption as the massive shuttle departed, completing validation of Burya’s ability to perform all nominal station support operations. Re-entry and landing followed later the same day, with Burya coming to a halt on the Yubileynyy runway at 10:58 UTC, bringing an end to another successful mission. Although Burya’s stay at the station was brief, the data obtained would prove vital in preparing future shuttle docking missions with Mir, as well as feeding into plans for the station’s successor.


[1] The VKA is TTL’s equivalent of the Russian Space Agency, created during the reforms of the early ‘90s to distance the technical side of the Soviet space programme from direct political supervision. It remains under the auspices of the Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM) and closely tied to the Defence Ministry.

[2] Various butterflies mean Soyuz TM-18 (and the other Soyuz missions since TM-16) are launched approximately 2 months ahead of their OTL schedule. Aleksandr Viktorenko takes the place of Viktor Afanasyev on Soyuz TM-18. 


Mission 1K2: Buran Flies Again, March 1995


The Decision to Fly

Unlike its US counterpart, it had always been intended that the Soviet space shuttle would undergo multiple unmanned launches before risking a crew. The scars of the Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 disasters were still fresh in the minds of many, and Soviet space managers had watched in horror as Bob Crippen and John Young had climbed aboard Columbia for the very first launch of the STS complex in 1981. The aftermath of the 1986 Challenger disaster, which amongst other things had highlighted the lack of escape options for crews of the American shuttle, re-enforced the Soviet view that their own space shuttle would have to prove itself in an automatic mode before any cosmonaut lives would be risked.

This cultural imperative delaying a crewed launch was then further enhanced by budgetary realities, which meant that neither of the two operational orbiters could be fitted with the necessary systems to support a full-up crewed mission for many years. However, by 1994, with three automatic launches and landings successfully completed and with spacecraft 1K Buran finally upgraded with all the requisite systems, the go-ahead was given for mission 1K2, the first manned launch of the Energia programme.

The Ship

Buran had made the first orbital flight of the Soviet shuttle programme in 1988, but six years later she was a very different ship. Like her sister orbiter Burya, Buran now had all of the power, thermal control and avionics systems needed for missions of up to eight days duration. Buran’s Command Compartment (KO), the flight deck of the spaceplane, was now fitted out with a full array of command consoles and display units, all linked to the main Biser-4 computers via the Adonis display processor. These control systems had all undergone extensive testing and debugging in the OK-KS electrical analogue test model at Kaliningrad before being integrated with Buran at Baikonur and then subjected to even more tests.

In a further change from her maiden flight, Buran’s KO now contained two K-36RB ejection seats, one each for the commander and pilot. These were modifications of the K-36 family of seats used in all Soviet high performance aircraft, customised to allow the cosmonauts to escape at any point from an on-pad abort up until around T+100s into the mission, when Buran reached 35km altitude at Mach 3.5. The two additional ejection seats that would normally be installed on the flight deck were omitted for mission 1K2 as no mission specialist/flight engineers would be carried on this occasion. Similarly, the mid-deck Habitation Compartment (BO) was left without ejection seats, avoiding the need to relocated the BO’s forward equipment bay to give the seats clear access to the escape hatches aft of the RCS thrusters in the orbiter’s nose.

Although bereft of ejection seats, Buran’s BO was now fitted with sleeping and washing facilities, a small galley, and a number of experiments (including three from ESA and one from NASA) housed in the deck’s equipment bays. Beneath the BO, the Aggregate Compartment (AO) had been upgraded with all the oxygen tanks, condensation and water recyclers, fire suppression, power and other systems that would keep the crew alive and safe during their stay on orbit.

As Mission 1K2 was planned to dock with Mir, Buran’s payload bay was fitted with an SM docking module. However, on this occasion the 37KB instrumentation module that had been carried for all three unmanned shuttle launches was left out. Instead the payload processing technicians in the MIK RN loaded another 37K-based capsule, the 37KT logistics module [1]. Loaded with five tonnes of fresh supplies and experiments for Mir, this module would be swapped out with the Fosvich-2 telescope on Kristall’s lateral APAS-89 port, taking advantage of the shuttle’s heavy payload capability to replace two of the regular Progress cargo missions. Although an expensive way to resupply the station, it would allow an otherwise non-operational test flight to make a positive contribution to the upkeep of the aging space station, as well as testing out techniques for the construction of Mir’s replacement.

The Crew

The cosmonauts chosen to pilot Buran through its first crewed mission were Igor Volk and Magomed Tolboyev. Both had been selected for the shuttle programme as part of the Zhukovsky-based Flight Research Institute’s (LII) team of “civilian” pilots, with Volk being named in the original 1977 group and Tolboyev being added in 1982. Volk had previously piloted the MiG 105.11 “Lapot” test vehicle (part of the abandoned Spiral two-stage spaceplane), and he quickly rose to become the leader of the LII team, who subsequently became known as the “Wolf Cubs” (a play on Volk’s name, “volk” being Russian for “wolf”).

Despite the fact that the Wolf Cubs formed a year later than the Cosmonaut Training Centre’s (TsPK) own team of nine pilots, the LII group came to the fore in 1981, when the Aviation Ministry (MAP) announced they were forming their own cosmonaut team for shuttle missions, in competition with TsPK’s parent Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM). The Wolf Cubs were reassigned to the MAP group and given the task of leading the atmospheric and orbital test flights of the shuttle. This testing began in earnest in 1984 with the Horizontal Flight Test campaign using the BTS-002 “Buran Analogue” aircraft, a scale copy of the planned shuttle orbiter fitted with additional jet engines to enable it to take off under its own power. Volk in particular was heavily involved in this campaign, piloting the vehicle for 15 of the 21 ground and airborne test runs. Both Volk and Tolboyev also spent many hours in simulators at NPO Molniya and at the Orbiter Simulator Building (KTOK) at Star City. Tolboyev also got to see Buran in action close-up when he piloted the MiG-25 SOTN chase plane that had followed Buran on its unmanned return to Baikonur in 1988. That mission had showcased Tolboyev’s piloting skills in an unexpected way as the orbiter had suddenly changed course during its final approach, forcing Tolboyev to make a high-G turn to avoid a possible mid-air collision with the spacecraft.

Despite the earlier decision in 1992 for the 2K1/Soyuz TM-16 docking with Burya to be given to a joint TsUP/Air Force team, by 1993 the MAP Wolf Cubs were once again assigned to lead the manned test flight programme. Volk and Tolboyev were therefore confirmed as the prime crew for mission 1K2 in July 1994, with Viktor Zabolotskiy and Ural Sultanov named as their back-ups. All four cosmonauts now began mission-specific training at Star City and Baikonur, utilising not only the shuttle simulators but also those for Mir and Soyuz. This last was important in case the need should arise to abandon the shuttle in orbit and either wait on Mir for pick-up, or dock with an APAS-equipped “Rescue Soyuz” spacecraft, one of which (serial number 102, designated Soyuz TM-21) would be on standby at Baikonur during the entirety of the mission. Assigned to pilot this potential rescue mission was Eduard Stepanov, TsUP veteran of the Soyuz TM-16 mission that had docked with Burya. If needed, he would be able to launch at 2 days notice, flying his Soyuz solo to dock with Buran and pick up Volk and Tolboyev. In the more optimistic scenario that no such rescue would prove necessary, Stepanov would stand down and his Soyuz would be held for the next planned crew rotation flight to Mir.


Buran was rolled out to Site 110’s Pad 38 astride Energia Vehicle 5L in early March 1995, keeping the pace of approximately one year between shuttle launches that had held since late 1992. In most respects the roll-out was indistinguishable from the earlier shuttle missions, but the 1K2 did sport one clearly visible difference: instead of the boxy grey containers of the recovery mechanisms, the four Blok-A boosters were a smooth, unblemished white. With recovery and refurbishment of the boosters now deemed uneconomical, the complicated system of parachutes, retro-rockets and landing legs could be omitted, aligning the Blok-A rockets more closely with their Zenit-2 counterparts. Ambitious plans to eventually turn the core stage into a fully re-usable flyback booster had also been abandoned as unrealistic. As the US had discovered with their own shuttle, Soviet engineers were reassessing whether the benefits of re-use were really worth the complications of refurbishment.


The harsh environment at Baikonur meant that the Soviet shuttle underwent almost all of its preparations before roll-out, and so spent less time on the pad than its American counterpart. The main operations left to complete were the loading of cryogens into the orbiter’s fuel cells and ODU propulsion system and the fuelling of the Energia core and booster stages. Fuelling was carried out completely automatically, and so it was not until the rocket was fully loaded early on the morning 14th March that Volk, Tolboyev and their accompanying team of technicians prepared to join the ship on the pad. This would mark the first Soviet manned launch not using a derivative of Korolev’s original R-7 missile, and so the bus took a different route from that which had become standard for more than thirty years. Nevertheless, Buran’s crew still marked the occasion in the traditional manner, with Volk announcing his crew’s readiness for the mission to Defence Minister Morozov[2] before boarding the bus that would take them out to the Raskat complex. Whether or not they also honoured the tradition of stopping the bus halfway to piss on the wheels, as Gagarin is alleged to have done, is unreported in the official press release.

At the base of the pad the cosmonauts and technicians climbed aboard the trolleys that would carry them through an enclosed pipeline to the orbiter access arm on one of the twin fixed service towers flanking the launcher. Once at the top, the team accessed Buran via the hatch in the BO mid-deck, carefully stepping only on marked areas of the “back wall” of the vertically tilted orbiter and ducking through to the KO flight deck. Here Volk and Tolboyev were helped into their ejection seats, the technicians strapping them in firmly and running final checks on the Strizh pressure suits that would protect the cosmonauts in case of cabin pressure failure or a bail-out. This done, the technicians withdrew from the orbiter cabin, sealing the access hatch behind them before once more riding the trolley system to the base of the pad (resisting the urge to take a shortcut through the lower of the two pipes, that housing the emergency escape chute, as many off-duty personnel were rumoured to do for fun).

The countdown proceeded under automatic computer control, leaving little for Volk and Tolboyev to do but respond to radio check requests. The three CRT displays of their Vega-1 control consoles ran through their pre-programmed sequences exactly as the two pilots had seen countless times in the simulator. Despite this veneer of familiarity, both cosmonauts felt the unique tension in their stomachs that told them that this time it was the real thing, that they really were strapped into an ungainly glider hitched to several tanks of highly flammable liquids just waiting to explode. Then, at T-9.9 seconds the sixteen combustion chambers of the four Blok-A boosters lit, transmitting a strong vibration and steady roar through the body of the launcher, heard now for the first time by human passengers. Just five seconds later the hydrogen/oxygen core stage engines added their voice to the cacophony, and Energia/Buran slipped free of the launch pad and rose into the sky at 11:12am Moscow time.

Attaining Orbit

Buran’s second ascent to orbit proceeded as smoothly as her first had, and with almost the same amount of pilot input, with the cosmonauts’ primary duty being to trigger the opening and closing of vents to release trapped air as the spacecraft ascended. This important duty aside, for the shuttle’s human crew the voyage was primarily marked by the steady progression of abort options. After T+1m40s ejection was no longer a possibility, with an Emergency Separation of the orbiter from the stack or a Return Manoeuvre, shutting down and dumping the boosters before turning the core and orbiter back towards Baikonur, being the two viable options (although for many of the cosmonauts and engineers involved “viable” was a relative term, with Emergency Separation in particular seen as being extremely risky).


With Blok-A separation occurring on-schedule at T+2m26s, these two scenarios remained in play, but by T+3m10s the ship had passed beyond the envelope for a Return Manoeuvre, with the option in case of a core engine failure now becoming a Single Orbit Trajectory (equivalent to a NASA Abort to Orbit or Abort Once Around). This remained the primary abort option all the way up until the core engines shut down at T+7m47s, which occurred as planned for mission 1K2. Volk and Tolboyev reported no problems following core stage separation, and a few minutes later the DOM manoeuvring engines fired to put Buran into orbit for the first time in over six years.

Early orbital operations such as the opening of the payload bay doors and deployment of the radiators and ONI antennas proceeded under automatic control, monitored by the two cosmonauts. Volk and Tolboyev spent their first three hours on-orbit running through careful checks of all of Buran’s vital equipment, paying particular attention to the life support systems. Having satisfied both themselves and mission control that there were no significant problems, the pair stripped out of their pressure suits and took a belated lunch in the BO’s new galley. Both later reported amazement at how much larger Buran’s cabin felt than that of the Soyuz spacecraft to which earlier cosmonauts had been accustomed, with weightlessness making it feel larger than even the mock-up cabins in which they had trained.

The afternoon’s activities mainly focussed on performing the necessary burns to move Buran towards a rendezvous with Mir. Communications with TsUP in Kaliningrad were improved over previous missions following the recent launches of the Gelios-11L and 12L “Luch 2” relay satellites, which had replaced the expired Altair 14L. Following an evening meal and use of the wash facilities, the two crewmen set up their sleeping bags in the flight deck and settled in for the evening. Although the flight plan had been for Volk to sleep in the KO whilst Tolboyev used the BO, the cosmonauts preferred to share the flight deck, partially to give them both easy access to the controls in case of emergence, but mainly so Tolboyev would also be able to watch the Earth through the KO’s large windows.

Docking with Mir

The next day was largely uneventful as Buran closed in on Mir, with Buran making her final approach to the station on the morning of 16th March. Unlike the automated docking of Burya on mission 2K2, for Buran’s 1K2 mission the Kristall module remained berthed at the station’s -Y lateral port, with the station forming a large ‘T’ shape in space. The experience of 2K2 had indicated that the off-axis loads of a shuttle docking in that position could easily be compensated for by Mir’s VDU thruster pack, and so the added effort of relocating the module to the axial port was deemed not to be worthwhile. In an additional change since the earlier docking, Kristall’s large solar wings had been relocated to the Kvant-1 module, meaning there was no need to stow them and suffer the subsequent loss of power that had been necessary to accommodate Burya.

In a final, welcome change from the earlier mission, Buran made a smooth and uneventful final approach to Mir, with no reoccurrence of the SBI radar issues that had delayed Burya’s docking. Buran docked at Kristall’s axial APAS port at 09:45 Moscow time on 16th March. Two hours later the hatch between Kristall and Buran’s SM docking module was opened and Volk and Tolboyev shared a traditional welcome of bread and salt with Mir EO-18 crewmen Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov.


The day after the docking, 17th March 1995, saw Magomed Tolboyev take control of Buran’s starboard SBM robot arm and grab the Fosvich-2 X-ray telescope attached to Kristall’s lateral APAS port. The small module had been sealed up ready for removal the previous week, and Tolboyev had no difficulty in detaching it from the station. The task of manoeuvring the telescope to it’s berth in the aft of Buran’s payload bay was complicated by the presence of the 37KT “Oblako” (“Cloud”) cargo module, but Tolboyev was able to successfully deposit Fosvich in the correct place for its latches to secure it to the shuttle, ready for the journey back to Earth.

The 18th saw Tolboyev once again at the RM-5 control console, this time to lift Oblako out of the cargo hold and move it to Kristall’s now-vacant lateral port. This operation also went smoothly, and as a result the go-ahead was given the next day, the 19th, for Volk and Strekalov to perform an EVA to make exterior connections between Oblako and Kristall, as well as confirm that Fosvich was indeed secured to the payload bay structure. The two cosmonauts donned Orlan DMA suits and exited using Buran’s SM hatch. Over the next five hours they completed all assigned tasks, including a test in which Volk attached himself to a special restraint on Buran’s port SBM arm, which Tolboyev then used to move him into position close to the Oblako module.


Return to Earth

19th March marked the final day of Buran’s operations at Mir, with Volk and Tolboyev departing aboard the shuttle at 11:40 Moscow time, five days after launch from Baikonur. Immediately after undocking, the crew started preparations for their return to Earth. The GSP Gyro Stabilisation Platforms were re-aligned with the ZSP star trackers and radio altimeter, after which the ONI antennas were retracted, the payload bay doors closed. Buran was then reoriented to fly tail-first, after which the DOM engines were fired at 14:21 Moscow Time over the Caribbean Sea to de-orbit the shuttle.

Buran dropped below 100 km altitude approximately 35 minutes later, at which point the Auxiliary Power Units (VSUs) activated, feeding hydraulic power to the aerodynamic controls. All of this took place without intervention from Volk or Tolboyev. The two skilled pilots remained for now passengers as Buran’s computer systems ran through the now familiar sequence of automated re-entry actions. They were intended to remain passive until touchdown, only taking control in the event of some failure of the automatic pilot - a situation very different from that of American shuttle pilots, who always flew their craft to a manual touchdown.

Buran entered communications blackout at around 80 km altitude, with contact restored between the cosmonauts and the ground at just under 50 km, at which point the RDS radio rangefinders locked onto the beacons at Baikonur and Buran began manoeuvring to line up with the runway. For this mission, re-entry had been triggered with the shuttle’s orbital track passing almost 550 km southwest of Baikonur, so Buran would have to make up this distance purely through its aerodynamic controls, without the jet engines that had originally been part of the shuttle’s design. However, this was well within the spacecraft’s 1050 km cross-range capability, and Volk and Tolboyev were relieved to see Buran make the necessary turns precisely to program.

As the shuttle dropped from hypersonic to supersonic speeds around 15 km from the runway - with ejection once again becoming an option for the cosmonauts should anything go wrong - Buran turned to take the southerly Heading Alignment Cylinder before exiting lined up on the Yubileynyy runway. At this point the crew decided to deviate from the mission plan, switching from automatic to manual mode for the final descent. This option had been discussed and rehearsed in simulators before the mission, but the controllers at TsUP had preferred to use the tried-and-trusted automatic pilot for the first manned mission rather than risk pilot error ending the mission in disaster. Needless to say, the Flight Research Institute pilots disagreed with this cautious approach, and Volk and Tolboyev had agreed between themselves the previous evening that, should the situation seem stable, Volk would pilot the shuttle himself for the final dozen kilometres.

Under Volk’s expert direction, Buran swooped into the steep 20 degree glidepath before levelling out to 2 degrees. The landing gear was deployed and, with a final flare, Volk put the giant glider gently onto the tarmac. As soon as all three main gear were in contact with the ground, he triggered the braking parachutes and activated the wheel and air brakes (the latter of which had not been used for unmanned landings), bringing Buran to a rest at 15:17 Moscow time. Volk and Tolboyev were privately reprimanded for their deviation from the mission plan in taking manual control, shortly before being awarded Hero of the Soviet Union medals for successfully completing the USSR’s first fully crewed shuttle mission.


[1] The 37KT is a TTL innovation, but not much of a stretch. It’s basically a Soviet equivalent of the Italian-built logistics modules that the shuttle used to ferry supplies to the ISS (one of which, Leonardo, now permanently attached to the station as a store room). 37KT is smaller, the same size as Mir’s Kvant-1 module, with which it shares a design.

[2] Kostyantyn Morozov was a professional soldier who by 1990 had risen to command an air army in Kiev. IOTL he went on to become the first Defence Minister of independent Ukraine. ITTL he spent a little longer in the armed forces before being appointed the Soviet Defence Minister around 1993, part of a political effort to get more non-Russians (and particularly Ukrainians) into the central government as a counter to pushes for independence. 
Mission 1K3: Retiring Mir, April 1997


Success in Space, Problems on Earth

Even as the USSR hailed the success of Buran’s first manned launch, an economic storm was preparing to break over the country. Despite the post-Ligachyov reforms, a combination of poor productivity, large government deficits, the over-valuation of the ruble, and the crippling costs of the ongoing conflict in the Caucuses was storing up trouble for the ex-superpower’s economy. The programme of privatisation in the early nineties, though not going as far as many in the West had hoped, had given many foreign observers the impression that the USSR was on a sustainable path towards “economic normalisation”. This fallacy was exposed in April 1995, when revelations of massive fraud in the sell-off of energy giant Gazprom triggered a sudden loss of confidence in the Soviet economy, which soon contracted at levels not seen since the late 1980s. By August 1995 a combination of devaluation of the ruble, a massive hike in central bank interest rates and an emergency loan from the IMF had managed to stabilise the situation. The central government committed itself to rein in profligate spending, reduce subsidies to the Republics, and liberalise rules on tax and investment by foreign companies. Together with a sometimes brutal government campaign against the excesses of the so-called “oligarchs” who had bought and then gutted former public sector companies (or at least those oligarchs who no longer retained good political connections, including a surprising number of newspaper and media company owners), this began to to stem the flow of capital out of the country. Despite all this, the Soviet economy still would not recover to its pre-crisis level until early 1997.

The expensive Soviet space programme was an immediate target for cutbacks following the economic crisis. Despite its general popularity with the Soviet people as a source of national pride and, more importantly, the unofficial patronage it enjoyed from President Nazarbayev, the need to quickly reduce government expenditure meant that tough choices now needed to be taken.

As early as May 1995, the decision was taken by the Soviet Space Agency (VKA) to cancel the next manned shuttle test flight, planned for Burya in late 1995, and declare the system “fully operational”. This was a controversial choice amongst veterans of the project, who had already seen the original 10-flight test programme cut back drastically, and who remembered vividly the consequences that had followed NASA declaring their shuttle operational too soon. These concerns were overridden by the RKK Energia’s management and their political bosses in the Soviet Space Agency. The Soviet shuttle had now performed four flawless launches (with Energia’s 1987 maiden flight marking a fifth success for the rocket), had been crewed for at least part of three missions, and had safely docked with Mir twice. The fact was that with efforts to commercialise the Energia-T and Energia-M vehicles continuing to meet with failure, the costs associated with supporting the shuttle’s giant booster were in any case limiting the programme to no more than one or two missions per year even before the crisis hit. The implication was therefore that if the original test plan were followed the orbiter airframes would be almost two decades old by the time they were declared “operational”, an absurd situation. Safety would of course remain top priority, but it was time to put the shuttle properly to work if it was to demonstrate its value to those holding the purse strings. Mission 2K3 was therefore cancelled and the next mission postponed into late 1996. The funding crunch meant that this date also quickly became unrealistic, and it would be 1997 before the next Soviet shuttle mission. In the end, the only shuttle to visit Mir in 1996 was the American orbiter Atlantis, on a joint mission designed to give US astronauts experience in station operations before starting assembly of their own space station the following year.

More dramatic than a slipped launch date was the decision that all future shuttle missions would be carried out by just a single orbiter. With replacement of the aging Mir space station now the VKA’s top priority, there was not enough room in the budget to justify keeping both shuttle orbiters in service. The flight rate now accepted for the shuttle could easily be supported by just one orbiter vehicle, and eliminating the second shuttle could even speed up inter-mission maintenance as it would no longer be necessary to process two vehicles in parallel. With skilled manpower becoming an increasing problem as veteran technicians and engineers began retiring without replacements being hired, halving the fleet would allow managers to stretch their shrinking resources further. Additionally, by using one of the orbiters as a source of spares for the other it would be possible to shut down some of the expensive, over-specialised supply chains supporting the shuttle programme, leading to further cost savings that could be ploughed into Mir’s replacement and upgrades to its supporting Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. No official announcement was ever made, but in September 1995 work on upgrading Burya to full crew launch capability was halted, never to resume.

One final victim of the funding crisis was the Mir space station itself. Operating well beyond its 5-year design lifetime, and with hardware for Mir-2 already under fabrication, it was decided that the Soviet budget would not be able to support two space stations in parallel any more than it could two shuttles. By December 1995 it was clear that for the numbers to add up, Mir-1 would have to have already been evacuated and decommissioned by the time the Mir-2 core was launched. Despite calls for the veteran station to be boosted into a high orbit to allow future missions to retrieve equipment and experiments for use on Mir-2, as well as an aborted attempt to sell the station to a Western consortium, by mid-1996 the decision had been taken to de-orbit the station, avoiding the risk of an uncontrolled re-entry that could injure people on the ground. Before that happened, Soviet space planners intended to extract as much value from the station as possible. Buran’s next flight, mission 1K3, was therefore tasked with making one last visit to the doomed station.

Mission Preparation

Despite being declared operational, the decision was quickly made to limit the crew size for mission 1K3 to no more than four. The shuttle was designed to carry as many as ten people, but that would mean six crewmembers being seated in the Habitation Compartment (BO) - equivalent to the US shuttle’s Mid Deck - which would in turn require some remodelling to allow ejection seats to be fitted (unlike NASA, the Soviets saw the ejection seats as a necessity even for operational flights). No more than four cosmonauts were expected to be needed for the mission objectives, and Mir’s life support systems would be unable to support any more than six (four from the shuttle plus the two regular crew members) should there be a need to evacuate to the station, so this limit was quickly accepted. It would still see 1K3 carry the largest group of cosmonauts ever launched together by the USSR.

The main objective of the mission was to take up supplies needed for the next few months and recover as many valuable pieces of equipment and experiments as possible for return to Earth before Mir was destroyed. The de-orbit itself would be performed by an unmanned cargo ship, hopefully a test flight of the new Progress-M2 vehicle. Despite much speculation in the media that Buran would bring back one of the large DOS or 77K space station modules in its entirety (a scenario that at least one Soviet media company claimed the Americans were studying as part of a plan to steal the station [1]), this was never considered a realistic option. Aside from Fosvich and Oblako, none of Mir’s modules had been designed to interface with the shuttle’s payload bay, and the many external antennas, girders and experiments that had been added over the years meant that it would be a mammoth job just to get them to fit inside the hold. Instead, Mir’s crew would load the already-docked Oblako with equipment to be returned, which Buran would then collect. At the same time a smaller module named “Usik” (“Cirrus”) would be dropped off with the supplies needed to see Mir through to its end.

Usik was delivered to Baikonur from the Progress plant in Samara in January 1997. Similar to the previously launched Fosvich-2 module, Usik was a “bare bones” upgrade of the Soyuz orbital module taken from vehicle 103, the third and last of the original batch of “Rescue Soyuz” spacecraft that had been ordered to support shuttle test flights (vehicles 101 and 102 having gone on to be used for space station ferry missions as Soyuz TM-16 and Soyuz TM-21 respectively). With four crew aboard Buran, an orbital rescue by a single Soyuz was not an option, so in an emergency Buran would instead use Mir as a safe haven until regular Soyuz missions could retrieve the crew. This increased the risks involved (for example it assume the emergency would not prevent Buran from docking, or at least rendezvousing, with Mir), but was considered acceptable for operational shuttle missions.

Refurbishment of the Soyuz 103 orbital module, which was already fitted with an APAS-89 port compatible with Kristall, saved considerable time and money in delivering Usik, with the main modifications being the addition of payload bay support struts and SBM grab points. These savings were especially important as the Progress plant was already heavily loaded with work to prepare the new line of upgraded Soyuz-TMA and Progress-M2 spacecraft, as well as two Soyuz-ACRVs for the United States’ space station Alpha.

Changes to Buran herself were largely limited to refurbishment of the thermal protection system tiles and the addition of two more ejection seats in the flight deck. These modifications were largely completed by September 1996, but the orbiter was then held in the MIK-OK for five months. In the first instance this was due to a delay in the readiness of the Energia 6L rocket, with late payments from VKA to OKB Yuzhnoye as a result of the 1995 economic crisis leading to knock-on effects on the production and delivery schedule. By December 1996 vehicle 6L was being assembled in the MIK-RN, but further delays then came as cracks were found in some of the fueling pipes at the Site 110 launch pads. A result of lax maintenance over the previous years, these required lengthy repairs in the depths of the Kazakh winter, meaning that Buran/6L would not make it to the pad until April 1997.

Mission 1K3 Launches

Buran mission 1K3 finally lifted off on 24th April 1997. On board were mission commander Valery Tokarev (who had transferred to the TsPK cosmonaut team following the disbanding of the Air Force GNIKI group in 1994) and pilot Nikolay Pushenko, a former test pilot who had been selected for TsPK’s Buran group in 1990. Joining them were two of TsPK’s flight engineers, Aleksandr Ivanchenkov and Sergei Krikalev. Both had been selected for shuttle missions in the 1980s, and had at one point been considered as members of the very first shuttle crew as part of a joint LII/TsPK team. Ivanchenkov was a veteran of two missions to Salyut-6 and 7, with almost 148 days of flight time under his belt, whilst Krikalev had participated in two expeditions to Mir, EO-4 and a long duration stay over EO-9/10.

Despite initial indications of a trouble-free launch, the mission was to include the first significant launch anomaly for the Energia rocket, when more than five minutes into the flight one of the four RD-0120 hydrogen burning engines on the core stage began losing thrust, before cutting out altogether at T+6m17s. Alarms immediately sounded on the shuttle’s flight deck and at mission control in Kaliningrad, but the humans responsible for the launcher’s flight had little to do as the automatic systems immediately reacted. As the failure had occurred after Blok-A booster separation, Buran’s flight computers put the stack into a Single Orbit Trajectory abort scenario, gimbaling the remaining three engines and increasing their burn time to compensate for the lost engine. With Tokarev and Pushenko monitoring closely on the CRT displays of their Vega-1 console, Buran steered the wounded rocket into a suborbital trajectory with an apogee of 142 km. The subsequent separation of the shuttle orbiter from the core stage went smoothly and, following a full systems check, the crew ordered the computer to fire the DOM engines to circularise Buran’s low orbit rather than initiate an early return to Earth. Buran was left substantially lower than her planned initial orbit, which in turn implied a larger than expected velocity change would be needed from the DOM engines to reach Mir. This ate into the mission propellant margins, but the TsUP control centre confirmed these remained within mission rules. Tokarev and his crew were therefore ordered to continue their mission, with ground controllers providing an updated schedule of engine burns to compensate for the lower starting point.

On the ground, the Soviet authorities initially withheld information on the incident, with TASS and Soviet Central Television reporting a completely successful launch. Only a few days later, when NORAD and amature space tracking enthusiasts began publically noting the unusually low parking orbit, did the Soviet’s admit that a “minor launch anomaly” had been encountered.


Cleaning House

With the drama of the launch behind them, Buran and her crew proceeded on an uneventful two-day chase of Mir, capped with a successful docking at the first attempt on 26th April 1997, joining Mir EO-23 crew Vasily Tsibliyev and Salizhan Sharipov. Over the next two days the Buran and Mir crews worked together to complete the removal of any valuable experiments and equipment to the Oblako module, including a spacewalk by Sharipov and Krikalev on the 28th to recover equipment mounted outside of the Kvant-2 and Kristall modules. Small samples were brought inside via Kvant-2’s airlock, with some large items moved to Oblako’s external storage compartments.

In an interview for the BBC several years later, Krikalev reported his shock at how much the condition of the Mir had deteriorated in the six years since his last stay. The station suffered frequent black-outs as the aging batteries were unable to support all systems throughout eclipse periods, and much of the equipment they had intended to recover could not be located amongst the clutter of more than a decade of use. Where equipment was removed, it was not uncommon to find mould growing on the walls where they’d been mounted. Thermal control was also an issue, with temperatures inside the station sometimes varying between 10 and 30 degrees Celsius over the course of an orbit. Krikalev reported that for the duration of their stay Tsibliyev and Sharipov slept in Buran’s BO, which maintained a much more comfortable environment rather than their own quarters on Mir. Although a violation of mission rules (in the event of an emergency undocking and re-entry there would not be enough seats for all of the cosmonauts aboard Buran), it allowed the two station crewmembers to enjoy a few nights without enduring temperature fluxes and frequent alarms. Despite strident calls from some in the Congress of People’s Deputies to save Mir as a badge of national pride, the cosmonauts who crewed her knew that the station was well past its prime and overdue for retirement.

Once packed and sealed, Oblako was detached from Kristall’s lateral port by one of Buran’s SBM arms on 29th April and replaced by the smaller Usik capsule. With the primary mission objectives accomplished, Buran’s crew began preparations for departure before undocking on the morning of 30th April. The planned de-orbit burn was complicated when one of the Biser-4 computers refused to load the necessary software, leading to a scrub of the burn. A re-boot of the machine failed to clear the problem, but as the other three units were functioning normally mission controllers gave the go-ahead for re-entry on the following orbit (an option made possible by the shuttle’s large cross-range capability). This burn was successfully executed and Buran went on to complete a nominal re-entry and landing profile under fully automatic control, bringing the Soviet shuttle’s first operational mission to a successful conclusion.


Farewell to Mir

Tsibliyev and Sharipov remained on Mir until 10th July, when they were replaced by Nikolai Budarin and Gennady Padalka, launching on Soyuz TM-26. The primary mission of Budarin and Padalka’s EO-24 was final decommissioning of the station, ensuring it was in a fit state to be safely de-orbited - morbidly referred to as the “gravedigger mission” by the cosmonauts. Despite this grim role, the mission would also provide a valuable contribution to the future of the Soviet space programme by proving out one of the new generation of space transports. This came in September with the unmanned launch of Progress M2-1.

Based on the long heritage of the Samara plant’s Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, Progress M2 was designed to take advantage of Zenit’s superior lifting capability to mount an extended pressurised capsule on a larger, more powerful service module, boosting the total mass of cargo that could be carried to 5.7 tonnes, as compared to the 2.6 tonnes of the older Progress M [2]. Normally intended to mount an APAS-89 androgynous docking port, for this first mission Progress M2-1 carried the trusty SSVP probe, allowing the large cargo ship to link up with the corresponding drogue port at the rear of Mir’s Kvant-1 module on 19th August 1997. The trouble-free docking and subsequent propellant transfer tests proved that Progress M2 was ready to support the USSR’s future in space.

Budarin and Padalka finally departed the station aboard Soyuz TM-26 on 27th October 1997, bringing a close to over a decade of permanent Soviet manned presence in space [3]. One month later, on 18th November, ground controllers at Kaliningrad commanded Progress M2-1 to fire her main engines, lowering the station’s orbit until it kissed the atmosphere high over the Pacific. Aerodynamic forces further slowed the station, preventing its re-emergence into space, before finally ripping her modules apart and reducing them to a fiery trail of artificial meteors in the night’s sky. It was the end of an era for Soviet manned spaceflight, but a new dawn was already visible on the horizon.



[1] Very similar to the rumour from OTL regarding US plans to steal Salyut-7, and just as divorced from reality.

[2] IOTL the Progress M2 was first proposed for Mir-2, with a later variant, Progress MT, put forward in 1999 for launch on the Yamal rocket (an R-7 with a high energy upper stage) to support the ISS.

[3] Habitation of Mir commenced with Soyuz T-15, launched on 13 March 1986. However, there was a hiatus between the return of Soyuz T-15 on 16 July 1986 and the subsequent launch of the next mission aboard Soyuz TM-12 on 5 February 1987, after which Mir was permanently crewed.


Mir-2: A New World, 1976-1999


A Successor to Mir

Plans for a replacement of the Mir space station had been floating around since the mid 1970s, authorised as part of the same programme of “3rd generation space systems” that included the shuttle and Energia heavy launch vehicle. Initially intended as little more than a copy of Mir, even making use of Mir’s back-up DOS-8 core module, by the mid-1980s the imminent debut of the Energia rocket, as well as the challenge of President Reagan’s Space Station Freedom and Star Wars projects, meant that more ambitious options could be considered. These reached a zenith with the so-called OSETS “Orbitalni Sborochno Ekspluatatsionni Tsentr” (“Operational Centre for Orbital Assembly”), a giant space dock composed of four 75 tonne pressurised modules attached to a large truss carrying photovoltaic arrays, radiators and up to eight solar thermal reflectors to generate over 100 kW of electrical power for use in industrial production and military experiments in missile defence. The crew of 6-12 cosmonauts would be ferried to and from the station by the shuttle and a new large space capsule, Zarya, to be launched via the Zenit rocket.

On its maiden flight in 1987, Energia carried a Polyus-Skif module similar to those proposed for the new station - indeed, the module was launched with “Mir-2” painted on its side. However, by the time a guidance error in its TKS-derived upper stage had caused Polyus to impact in the Pacific, plans for Mir’s successor had already been down-scaled from four to three large modules, and the station would continue to shrink as the Soviet Union suffered through the Gorbachev Depression.

In April 1990, shortly after the ouster of Gorbachev, the decision was taken to postpone all work on Mir-2 in order to focus on the completion of the Buran and Burya shuttle orbiters. Despite this directive, NPO Energia’s Chief Designer, Yuri Semenov, continued low-level studies on a cheaper replacement for Mir, perhaps by initially evolving the existing station through adding new modules and gradually disposing of the old ones. These studies were internally given the derisive name “Mir 1.5”, but they meant that when the political winds changed again Semenov would have a proposal to hand, ready to go at short notice.

International Collaboration

Such a change came in 1992 with the election of US President Bill Clinton. Building on the groundwork laid by his Republican predecessor, Clinton sought to strengthen ties with the struggling USSR in order to bolster the Kremlin reformers against either a catastrophic disintegration at the hands of separatist forces, or a renewed power-grab from the old guard. To this end, Clinton proposed a number of direct measures to support the Soviet economy, such as pushing for increased IMF loans, as well as more indirect but targeted means, including increased cooperation in space exploration. Aside from military hardware, the space industry was the one sector of the economy where the Soviets could claim to be globally competitive, with their liquid rocket engines in particular recognised as being the most advanced in the world.

As well as agreements on access to Soviet launch vehicles for US commercial payloads and exploratory talks into US firms building Soviet engines under license, there were further discussions on joint manned space flights. The US Space Station Freedom project had undergone the same process of down-sizing as Mir-2, and by 1993 had been reduced to an abbreviated version unaffectionately nicknamed “Space Station Fred”. With both the US and Soviet stations struggling for funding, talks were held between NASA and VKA on merging their two projects to form a single “International Space Station”. However, despite the end of the Cold War, hawks in both the US Congress and the USSR Supreme Soviet spoke out loudly against such close collaboration with “the enemy”.

Although this opposition killed the chances of a joint station, it did raise the profile of manned spaceflight as an area of continuing ‘friendly’ competition between the current and former superpowers, and active cooperation in fact continued, albeit at a lower level. When the US Congress narrowly approved appropriations for the so-called “Option A-3” redesign of Freedom (now called “Space Station Alpha”) in 1994, it included an option to use Soviet Soyuz capsules as an interim lifeboat [1]. This would allow Alpha to be permanently manned from as early as the fourth assembly flight, rather than waiting for the 16th assembly flight and development of NASA's own Assured Crew Return Vehicle. The FY-1995 funding act therefore released $50 million for Boeing and RKK Energia to begin studying the modifications that would be needed to allow Soyuz to be delivered to Alpha’s 28 degree orbit by the US Space Shuttle, as well as extending its dormant in-orbit lifetime to up to 2 years. It also authorised a series of joint US-Soviet missions in which NASA astronauts would travel to Mir via Soyuz, whilst Soviet cosmonauts would be given berths on the American shuttle. Also planned were a series of dockings between US shuttles and Mir (with the Soviets paid to supply a suitable docking adapter module), but the retirement of Mir in 1997 meant that the visit of Atlantis in 1996 was the only such mission flown.

In addition to the Soviets supplying Alpha with a lifeboat, Moscow-based Fili KKP [2] proposed to sell to NASA one of the two unflown 77K modules, originally built for Mir, to act as a service module and space tug for the station. However, despite the fact that this would have allowed a man-tended capability for Alpha from the first launch, US officials were uncomfortable with putting a Soviet component on the station’s critical path, and so this proposal was rejected. However, the Soviets found a more receptive audience in Europe, with ESA proposing to share the costs of completing a 77K in exchange for hosting European experiments and the Soviets providing an annual crew slot for ESA astronauts to visit Mir-2. Similar in concept to ESA’s cancelled Man Tended Free Flyer, this Euro-Soviet Technological Complex (ESTC) would spend much of its time separated from the Mir-2 station, docking occasionally to return samples and have experiments swapped out. ESA had already agreed to provide the European Robotic Arm for the Soviet station, and were planning several astronaut visits to Mir in the coming years under the Euromir programme, making their commitment to Mir-2 a natural extension of the evolving Euro-Soviet relationship [3].

So it was that by late 1994 the shape of Mir-2 had begun to crystallise. The core of the station was once more to be the DOS-8 module originally built as Mir’s back-up, now launched into a 65 degree orbit. This would be supported by a number of small specialised modules that could be swapped out as needed. Unlike on Mir, these additional modules would not be self-contained spacecraft, but would draw their power and other utilities from a large central beam housing solar generators, radiators and engines. The initial DOS-8 core and the European lab would go up on either separate Proton or Energia-M launches, or together on a single Energia-M, with the rest of the components to be launched and assembled by Buran and Burya.

Authorisation to proceed with Mir-2 was formally given by presidential decree in January 1995. Work immediately got underway at the Fili KKP factory outside Moscow to refurbish the long-dormant DOS-8 and 77KSO [4] modules and fit them with the systems needed to turn them into the Mir-2 Base Block and ESTC respectively. However, just a few months later the entire project was put in doubt as the Soviet Financial Crisis hit.

With the advent of the Crisis, by June 1995 work on DOS-8 had come to an almost complete halt. Refurbishment of the ESTC (funded by ESA under a contract denominated in US dollars) continued at a reduced level, as did development of the Soyuz-ACRV for NASA, but the rest of the Mir-2 project was paused. In September 1995, in response to the crisis, the station underwent a final redesign to reduce as far as possible the number of expensive Energia and Energia-M launches. The shuttle-launched 37K-based lab modules would now be replaced by smaller, cheaper modules sharing a design with the pressurised compartments of the Progress M2 cargo vehicle. The node, lab and airlock modules would now all be launched by Zenit and ferried to the station by modified Progress M2 service modules, a considerably cheaper option than relying on the shuttles for a ride. The large central truss was still planned to be carried via shuttle in two separate flights, but the design left open the option for the sections to be launched on Energia-M, or split into smaller chunks and carried by Zenit. The initial DOS-8 core and the European lab would now go up on Proton. The orbital plane of the station was also changed, over European objections, to the same 51.6 degree inclination as Mir. This would increase the mass that could be launched to the station in a single go, hopefully reducing the number of flights that would be needed to keep the station supplied. It would also allow a postponement of plans to human-rate Zenit, which would have been necessary if the Soyuz spacecraft were to reach a 65 degree orbit with a full crew of three plus the heavy APAS-89 docking system. The cheap and reliable R-7-derived Soyuz rocket would therefore continue its long role as the Soviet Union’s primary crew launcher, alongside occasional shuttle visits that would temporarily boost the station’s crew to ten or more.

Assembly Begins

Work on DOS-8 re-started in February 1996 and proceeded relatively smoothly throughout the rest of the year. In December the module was handed over from Fili KKP to RKK Energia and shipped to Baikonur’s Site 2 to undergo final outfitting and tests prior to launch, which was now targeted for mid-1997. However, electrical testing conducted at the MIK 2B facility in April uncovered a number of serious defects that would postpone the launch date into 1998. Investigators eventually discovered that technicians working on the Energia-owned DOS-8’s power system had skipped important component-level testing as Fili prioritised work on their own ESTC for the dollar-paying Europeans over that of their Soviet colleagues. The investigation would eventually lead to criminal charges against several Fili mid-level managers, whilst many of the Moscow-based technicians found themselves sharing the punishment by being exiled to Baikonur for six months to fix the module on-site.

By March 1998 fitting out of DOS-8 had been completed and the module was moved from MIK 2B to Building 92-1 to undergo final preparations and integration. Fueling of its hypergolic propulsion system was carried out in the first week of April, after which the station module was installed under its fairing and mated with the Proton-K carrier rocket. The integrated stack was then rolled horizontally by rail car to Pad 24 at Site 81, where it was raised to vertical on 22nd April 1998. Two days later the Proton-K lit its engines and lifted the first module of the Soviet Union’s new space station to orbit.

With the initial operations and check-out showing no problems, the path was cleared for the first crewed mission to Mir-2. This would be Soyuz TMA-1 carrying cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Gennady Padalka, launched from Baikonur’s LC-1 on 5th June 1998. Although officially marking the first launch of the Soyuz TMA variant (where the “A” referred to the APAS-89 docking system), this spacecraft was virtually identical to the “Rescue Soyuz” spacecraft used for the Soyuz TM-16/Burya docking mission and held on the pad in case of emergency during Buran’s manned launches. Soyuz TMA-1 included some modernised avionics and other minor upgrades, but was otherwise the same reliable spaceship that had supported Mir-1 over the previous dozen years. This heritage meant that, in a departure from established Soviet practice, the new ship was to be manned on its first launch (although many observers attributed this decision more to the general shortage of funds than to confidence in the equipment).

Aside from proving the new Soyuz variant, the main objective of the Soyuz TMA-1 mission (forming the first part of Mir-2 EO-1) was to complete the on-orbit check-out of the Mir-2 Base Block and prepare for the upcoming assembly missions. To this end the space in Soyuz normally used for a third cosmonaut was filled with 85 kg of equipment and experiments that had not been ready for installation before DOS-8’s final preparations. Musabayev and Padalka soon got to work in their role as space handymen, powering-up and testing equipment, as well as making occasional field repairs - a role that had become wearyingly familiar to veterans of the last years of the Mir-1 space station.

The next visitor to the station was a Progress M2 cargo ship. Launched by Zenit from Baikonur, Progress M2 took advantage of that rocket’s greater throw-weight to carry an expanded pressurised cargo module, whilst the redesigned service module used common propellant tanks both for its own needs and to refuel Mir-2. This was the second mission for the new spacecraft, Progress M2-1 having docked with Mir-1 on a test flight in late 1997 before committing that station to its final journey. This new launch, designated Progress M2-SO1, saw the pressurised cargo module replaced with the first of Mir-2’s docking and airlock modules, SO-1 or “Pirs” (Pier) [5].

The launch proceeded without a hitch, as Zenit once more demonstrated the reliability that was helping to make it such a popular choice in the international commercial launch market. Two days after lift-off, on 5th July 1998, Progress M2-SO1 successfully docked at the Mir-2 Base Block’s aft port, beginning the long process of expanding the new station. Over the following week Musabayev and Padalka unloaded a tonne of equipment and provisions that had been shipped up with Pirs, taking special care to check out the two Orlan-DMA spacesuits that had been included in the manifest. Other tests involved a refueling of the Base Block’s propellant tanks by the Progress M2 service module via pipelines installed in Pirs, a capability that would be vital in keeping the station’s tanks topped up over its lifetime. With these tests completed, the Progress M2 service module was used to boost the station’s orbit before detaching from Pirs on 30th August and de-orbiting for a destructive re-entry over the Pacific.

Settling In

On 18th September 1998 Musabayev and Padalka were joined on the station by the crew of Soyuz TMA-2: Viktor Afanasyev, Valery Korzun, and Spanish guest cosmonaut Pedro Duque [6]. The relief crew became the first to dock at Pir’s aft APAS-89 docking port, and the new module would continue to feature prominently in the mission as it doubled as temporary sleeping quarters for Afanasyev and Korzun as the five crew members shared accommodations on the cramped station.

ESA astronaut Duque would spend his time on the station setting up long-term experiments that were planned to transfer to the ESTC module (since christened “Magellan” [7]) upon its anticipated launch the following year. Duque also conducted a number of television broadcasts for both European and Soviet TV networks as part of a broader outreach campaign. After a week aboard Mir-2, Duque joined Musabayev and Padalka as Soyuz TMA-1 undocked from the forward axial port and headed for a landing in the Kazakh SSR, formally marking the end of Mir-2 EO-1 and the start of EO-2.

Following a relocation of Soyuz TMA-2 to the axial Base Block port, EO-2 saw the first spacewalks of the Mir-2 era, with Afanasyev and Korzun making use of Pirs’ large airlock to install external experiments and test techniques for assembling truss structures. These latter involved opening both airlock doors so that a long frame could be assembly by the cosmonauts without them needing to leave the Pirs module, with the ends of the assembled beam protruding from each side of the module.


The most important addition to the station during EO-2 came in early January 1999, with the launch of Progress M2-USM1. This Zenit-launched mission heralded the arrival of the first of two planned Universal Docking Modules, nodes equipped with up to eight APAS-89 docking ports that would form the connecting hubs linking Mir-2s various modules together. USM-1, named “Yedinstvo” (Unity), was particularly important as its two lateral mid-point ports would be the attach points for the station’s central truss, the Science Power Platform (NEP), which would provide power and cooling services to the rest of the growing station.


With Yedinstvo successfully docked and unloaded, the crew of EO-2 began preparations for handing over to EO-3 at the end of January. This new crew consisted of Vasily Tsibliyev and Aleksandr Kaleri, joined in their Soyuz TMA-3 capsule by American “space tourist” Dennis Tito. Tito had paid for his flight as the world’s first “space tourist” through MirCorp, a private company that had been set up several years earlier with the aim of purchasing the Mir-1 station from the Soviet government upon its retirement. Although that deal never went through, MirCorp was able to arrange for private individuals to purchase a ride in the third seat on Soyuz flights to Mir-2, and so spend around a week in orbit [8].

Tito returned to Earth (twenty million dollars lighter, but otherwise unharmed) with Afanasyev and Korzun aboard Soyuz TMA-2, vacating Pir’s aft docking port. A few weeks later Tsibliyev and Kaleri would relocate their own Soyuz TMA-3 spacecraft to Pirs, freeing up Yedinstvo’s axial port to support the next assembly mission: the long-awaited arrival of Buran at the station.



[1] IOTL The President was given four options: A1 (downsized, simplified Freedom using a Lockheed Bus1 propulsion module), A2 (the same as A1 but with specialised thrusters on the truss instead of Bus1), B (basically Freedom with the assembly sequence slightly re-jigged) or C (a monolithic can launched on a one-off Shuttle-C, similar in some respects to the station from Eyes Turned Skyward, but without the truss). IOTL all those options were made redundant by the agreement to bring the Russians on-board, though A2 was the front runner. ITTL the President (or rather his advisors) gets the same set of options… and opt to invent a fifth “A3”, which can be considered the equivalent of OTL’s ISS “US Core Complete” (i.e. the bare minimum number of US components we can get away with and still meet our obligations to partners).

[2] The Fili Space Production Company (Fili KKP) is the result of a merger between the former KB Salyut (part of NPO Energia between 1981-1988) and the Khrunichev Machine-Building plant, both of which are located in the Moscow suburb of Fili. KB Salyut had previously been known as OKB-23, or the Fili branch of Chelomei’s OKB-52 bureau, with the Khrunichev Plant long having assigned to build OKB-23’s designs.

The merger also went ahead IOTL, as both KB Salyut and Khrunichev found themselves competing to sell the same product (the Proton rocket) to foreign customers. The merger IOTL created GKNPTs Khrunichev in 1993 as an independent company outside the authority of any government ministry or the Russian Space Agency. This special status allegedly came about due to the fact that President Yeltsin’s daughter worked for the company, in an uncanny echo of Nikita Khrushchev's patronage of OKB-52 due to Chelomei hiring his son.

ITTL as IOTL, the merged company is privatised in the early 1990s (aka “flogged off to its management for a criminally low price” as part of the policy of getting as many enterprises as possible off the state’s books to qualify for desperately needed IMF loans), but ITTL Fili KKP remains under the legal supervision of the All-Union Space Agency.

[3] ESA interest in joining Mir-2 is common with OTL, where the 1992 ESA ministerial meeting in Grenada approved work on the European Robotic Arm for Mir-2, a joint ESA-Russian spacesuit design, and explored options for the former Columbus Man Tended Free Flyer to operate in conjunction with Mir-2. At the time it was seen as a hedge against uncertain US political commitment to Freedom, which the US Senate came within a single vote of cancelling in 1993.

IOTL the spacesuit and MTFF were cancelled outright, but the ERA is still planned to form part of the Russian Segment of the ISS, to be flown to the station with the much-delayed Nauka Multipurpose Lab Module. Like TTL’s ESTC, OTL’s Nauka is based upon a 77K module.

[4] IOTL, 77KSO became the Spekr module of Mir, launched in 1995 with US support and experiments. The module was famously rendered uninhabitable in the summer of 1997 when it was hit by Progress M-34 as a result of a money-saving experiment in manual remote piloting. ITTL the diversion of funding from Mir to Buran/Energia in the early ‘90s means the module is still sitting at the factory in Fili, alongside the hull of 77KSI (OTL’s Priroda).

[5] Note that, although the design is the same, this is not the same module as OTL’s Pirs. That module was ITTL used for its intended purpose, as the SM docking module for orbiter 1.02 (Burya).

[6] IOTL Duque did not get his first spaceflight until 2003 aboard STS-95. Here he gets an early shot as part of the extended ESA-VKA “EuroMir” programme. In both timelines he was selected as an ESA astronaut in 1992. He is counted as the first Spanish astronaut, although in both timelines he is preceded by NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who although born in Madrid is a naturalised citizen of the US.

[7] This means of course that the module shares a name with the famous Venus probe, but as Europe felt no shame in naming its navigation system “Galileo” I figure the allure of naming a space station module after a second famous European navigator was too compelling. ITTL the equivalent module on Alpha remains “Columbus”, as per OTL’s ISS module.

[8] MirCorp existed IOTL for much the same reasons, although it would be another firm, Space Adventures, that would ultimately give Tito his shot IOTL, flying to the ISS in 2001. ITTL the earlier demise of Mir-1, plus less involvement (and so opposition) from NASA (an OTL ISS partner, but nothing to do with TTL’s Mir-2), has moved up the timetable by several years.

IOTL it was MirCorp that paid for the mission that saw Aleksandr Kaleri fly to Mir with Sergei Zalyotin in 2000 to briefly re-activate the station. ITTL Kaleri’s participation is fully funded by the Soviet government.


Mission 1K4: Buran-Mir-2, March 1999


Space Truckers

By 1999 Low Earth Orbit had become a busy construction site, in which winged shuttles were finally able to fulfill the role envisaged for them since before the dawn of the Space Age: orbital trucks, hauling the cargo and supplies necessary to assemble and maintain large, permanent space stations. The US was leading the way, as starting with the launch of Atlantis on STS-86/Alpha Assembly Flight 1 in September 1997, the Americans used their shuttle to first build an unmanned “Power Station” before going on to develop a man-tended capability with the addition of the first Common Core/Lab pressurised module (“Destiny”) [1] on STS-90/AAF-4 in June 1998. Less than one year later, in May 1999, Alpha reached its Initial Permanent Crew Capability, with Discovery delivering the first of two Soviet-built Soyuz-ACRV lifeboats to the station on mission STS-93/AAF-4a. With this addition the crew of Alpha Expedition 1, James Voss and Ellen Ochoa, began a permanent US crewed space presence which continues to this day. With this milestone achieved, attention next shifted to providing an “Initial International Crew Capability” through the addition of the European Columbus and Japanese Kibo modules. Assuming no unexpected problems arose, NASA was on course to achieve their objective of a permanent crew of six before the end of 2002, when AAF-13 was scheduled to deliver the second Soyuz-ACRV.


Mesh modified from “ISS (Mesh Only)” by ChrisKuhn

In comparison, the Soviets had placed much more emphasis on unmanned launchers to support the assembly of their space station, reflecting their previous experience with Salyut and Mir. While NASA’s fleet of four shuttle orbiters were supporting five or six assembly flights per year, VKA’s single operational orbiter, Buran, was assigned to carry only the largest and most complex components for Mir-2, where the shuttle’s heavy lift capability and support for complex human-guided operations would have the greatest value. The first such mission came in March 1999 with the launch of mission 1K4.

Following her flight to Mir in mid-1997, Buran had undergone a comparatively rapid and trouble-free turnaround, and was ready to support another mission as early as December 1997. Her carrier rocket, Energia vehicle 7L, was not far behind, with all components integrated at Baikonur in January 1998. However, on this occasion the problem was with the payload. The two large Science Power Platform trusses (“Nauchno-Energeticheskaya Platforma”, or NEP) had been starved of funds during the financial crisis as meagre resources were diverted to the critical initial modules of the station. The design was not finalised until late in 1995, with construction only starting at RKK Energia in early 1997.

The main assembly of NEP-1 did not arrive at Baikonur’s MIK 2B payload processing facility until October 1998. This consisted of a pressurised module containing gyrodynes and control systems; a fixed truss containing batteries, propellant tanks and a deployable radiator; and an extending truss section terminating in the solar array drive assembly. The solar panels themselves were stowed in separate packages tied to the side of the truss, to be unpacked and connected by spacewalking cosmonauts. Folded tightly against the side of the truss were the two VDU propulsion units, larger versions of the experimental unit that had been tested on Mir’s Sofora truss. The final item to be shipped with the NEP was the ESA-supplied European Robotic Arm (ERA), which had been delivered to the Soviets earlier in the year. ERA was an important part of plans for Mir-2 as it would enable the repositioning of heavy station modules and other payloads when Buran and its twin SBM manipulators were unavailable.

Integration and testing of the NEP-1 package proceeded over the following two months before the entire assembly was moved to the MIK RN and carefully lowered into Buran’s cargo bay. At almost 22 tonnes, NEP-1 was by far the heaviest payload yet for the Soviet shuttle, and together with the SM docking module completely filled the orbiter’s cargo bay. [2] In an unusual step, fuelling of NEP-1’s propellant tanks was carried out in the MZK along with Buran’s own on-board propellant loading. This was done in order to minimise the amount of time that the poisonous UDMH/N2O4 propellants would be present in the stack, necessitating special precautions when working on the spacecraft. With this hazardous task completed, the payload bay was re-sealed and the Buran/Energia-7L stack rolled out to Pad 38 for final preparations and fueling of the Energia rocket.

Controversial Crew

One positive aspect of the enforced delay in launching mission 1K4 was that it gave time for the necessary remodelling of Buran’s mid-deck Habitation Compartment to allow the fitting of ejection seats in the BO. The number of crew members carried could therefore be expanded beyond the initially planned four, to potentially as many as ten. In the end however, it was decided to include only three additional crew members, bringing the total up to seven (coincidentally the normal maximum crew complement of the US space shuttle).

Commanding the spacecraft would be Ivan Bachurin, who had been part of the GKNII-1 group of pilot-cosmonauts selected for the shuttle programme back in 1979. Piloting Buran would be Valeriy Maksimenko, a member of the 1990 GKNII-4 intake of cosmonauts, with the remaining two flight deck seats taken by TsPK flight engineers Valeriy Illarionov and Sergei Avdeyev. Taking the first of three seats in the BO was Vladimir Dezhurov, veteran of Mir expedition EO-18 during which Buran had docked with the station on mission 1K2.

The next seat was assigned to NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, whose participation in the mission was part of a series of US-Soviet crew exchanges that had been agreed to alongside the signing of the contract for Alpha’s Soyuz-ACRV lifeboats back in 1994. The programme had previously seen astronaut John Blaha visit Mir on Soyuz TM-24 in 1996 (to be picked up by the shuttle Atlantis later that same year) and cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova join the crew of Columbia as part of STS-83 in 1997. Linenger had originally been planned to fly to Mir-2 aboard Soyuz TMA-5, but the opening up of mid-deck seats on Buran was an opportunity that neither the Soviets nor NASA wanted to pass up, and he’d switched to training for 1K4 in mid-1998.

Linenger’s participation in the mission had however been put into some doubt when NASA discovered who was to fly in Buran’s final available seat: MirCorp investor and the world’s second space tourist Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria. NASA (with no apparent sense of irony) considered the Soviets’ commercial sale of berths on their spacecraft to private individuals to be in some way demeaning to NASA’s own state employed astronauts. The announcement that Indian-American businessman Kathuria would be sharing a ride with Linenger caused some diplomatic tension between Washington and Moscow in the winter of 1998/99, with pressure also being applied to US-based MirCorp to withdraw from the mission.

Despite the fact that many in the Soviet space programme privately agreed with NASA’s view, in the end these efforts came to nothing, and the American agency grudgingly accepted Kathuria’s presence on the mission (though they insisted on referring to him as a “citizen astronaut” in NASA press briefings, while everyone else continued to use the term “space tourist”).

Journey to Mir-2

Buran experienced a trouble-free launch on 20th March 1999. The surplus of time available for pre-flight servicing, combined with the heightened media attention surrounding the launch of Linenger and Kathuria, meant that there had been a special focus on quality during pre-launch processing of the orbiter and and its launcher to ensure no embarrassing systems failures would marr the mission. In particular, the word came down from the central government that any repeat of the engine trouble seen on mission 1K3 would result in criminal prosecutions of all involved. This crude threat appeared to have the desired effect, as 1K4 went on to have the fewest number of reported anomalies from any Energia launch to date.

Once on orbit, the seven-man crew were able to stretch their legs, with Buran’s accommodations easily able to support the enlarged crew. Whilst Bachurin and Maksimenko were occupied with putting Buran on a trajectory to intercept Mir-2, Illarionov and Dezhurov busied themselves by checking out the shuttle’s NEP-1 payload. Avdeyev and Linenger were tasked with activating the experiments hosted in the BO, whilst Kathuria made himself useful performing various housekeeping tasks, alongside his main objective of filming promotional videos for MirCorp’s publicity efforts. For sleeping arrangements, Bachurin and Maksimenko both remained in the KO, with all of the other cosmonauts sharing accommodations in the BO.

On the morning of 22nd March, Buran was ready to make its final approach to the new Soviet space station. After making a brief fly-around of the station, Bachurin lined the shuttle up with the APAS-89 port of it’s SM facing the axial port of the Yedinstvo module. During final approach Mir-2’s resident crew, Vasily Tsibliyev and Aleksandr Kaleri, retreated to their Soyuz TMA-3 spacecraft, but remained docked to the station, ready to separate only if an emergency demanded it. In the event their caution was not needed, as Buran gently nudged up to the station. Thirty minutes after hard-dock, the two crews greeted one another in Yedinstvo, forming the largest on-orbit crew of any space mission to date [3].


Putting it All Together

The next few days saw Mir-2 become a hive of activity, starting with the removal of NEP-1 from Buran’s cargo bay and its attachment to Yedinstvo’s Y- mid-point docking port on 23rd January. With docking confirmed good, Kaleri entered the NEP’s pressurised module and commanded the full extension of its truss, ready to receive the solar arrays. This relatively straightforward task was then followed by one of the most complex EVAs ever attempted, as Bachurin and Illarionov exited Buran’s SM airlock whilst Dezhurov and Kaleri egressed the Pirs docking module, with Maksimenko controlling Buran’s two SBM arms from the Command Compartment to move the four spacewalkers to the newly installed NEP-1 truss. Over twelve hours, this record-breaking spacewalk saw the VDUs deployed and the solar arrays connected to the rotary joint at the end of the truss.

The next day saw the NEP’s radiator deployed and internal connections made, before Kaleri and Illarionov once again ventured outside the station on 25th January to wire up the solar panels and run external mechanical and electrical connections between the NEP and Yedinstvo modules. With this task completed after an exhausting 8-hour spacewalk, NEP-1 was finally given the command to unfurl its solar wings and began feeding 40 kW of electrical power into the station’s systems.


While the Soviet cosmonauts focussed on expanding their station, NASA astronaut Linenger spent most of his time installing and tending experiments in the Mir-2 Base Block. These were primarily related to human health and space environment issues, designed to provide comparable datasets of human reactions aboard both Mir-2 and Alpha. An example of this was the IREX experiment, which was designed to measure the radiation environment within Mir-2 whilst a similar detector installed on NEP-1 would relay measurements from outside the station. Identical instruments were already in place aboard Alpha’s Destiny module and S1 truss, allowing scientists and engineers to directly compare how the different orbits and construction of the two stations affected the radiation fluxes experienced by the crews.

Although the results of this and other experiments were received positively, Linenger himself proved to be a more disruptive element. With electrical power aboard the station limited before the deployment of the NEP-1 arrays, the US astronaut found his activities frequently disrupted by power shortages. Also frustrating was the Soviet approach to undertaking mission tasks on a largely ad-hoc basis, in stark contrast to the detailed timelines and procedures defined by NASA for its astronauts. Any activity that required the support of the Soviet cosmonauts was subject to their own, often shifting priorities, which played havoc with Linenger’s carefully crafted schedules. The fact that the American astronaut was not shy in voicing his displeasure did nothing to encourage his Soviet comrades to go out of their way to help him.

Nor did it help that Linenger managed to alienate his only other potential assistant, space tourist Dr. Kathuria. Kathuria had early on volunteered to support Linenger with any routine, non-specialist tasks, only to be sharply rebuffed. Part of this was a reflection of NASA’s official disapproval of space tourism, but part seemed to have been a simple personality clash. In either case, the result was Kathuria devoted more time to his promotional activities and Earth-watching, whilst Linenger fell further behind in his scheduled activities.

Back to Earth

After five days docked to the station, Buran’s crew of seven re-boarded the shuttle and prepared for departure. The mission had been by far the most intensive of any previously flown by the Soviet shuttle, setting new records for the number of man-hours of EVA in such a short period. Despite their exhaustion though, the crew of 1K4 could look back with satisfaction at a job well done, with the fruits of their efforts clearly visible as the shuttle pulled away from the station. Mir-2 had gone from a small collection of linked modules into a true building in space, a complex structure spanning almost 30 metres, capable of supporting the new laboratories now under preparation on the ground. The next Buran mission was scheduled to complete the station’s main truss with the addition of NEP-2, and with the Soviet economy finally starting to turn around there were expectations that the tempo of shuttle missions might finally increase to something resembling a regular service. Old plans for long-duration, high altitude orbital missions with the shuttle were being dusted off in Kaliningrad as programme managers dared to hope that Buran may fly twice a year or more from 2001 onwards.

It was not to be.



[1] The Common Core/Lab modules are - literally - a merger of the planned Freedom Resource Node and Lab modules, which substitute the Forward Cylinder of the Lab module with a Node Radial Port Cylinder. This was part of the 1993 Space Station Redesign Report’s Option A, intended to save money by building just one type of US pressurised module instead of the two planned for Freedom.

[2] IOTL the version of the NEP that was planned for the ISS came in at around 15 tonnes on launch and 20 tonnes when all its extra systems were installed. TTL’s NEP is larger and manages to squeeze all of the necessary systems into a single launch. The SM docking module masses around 3.5 tonnes, meaning Buran will on this occasion be carrying 25.5 tonnes out of a designed 30 tonne maximum payload. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest OTL shuttle payload was the Chandra X-ray telescope at 22.8 tonnes, so it seems likely that Buran mission 1K4 will take the record for the heaviest ever shuttle-launched payload.

[3] IOTL the record is thirteen people aboard the ISS via missions STS-127, Soyuz TMA-14 and Soyuz TMA-15 in 2009. ITTL the previous record was the eight person crew of STS-61-A in 1985, although there have almost certainly been more people on orbit at once (but not docking, so not forming a single crew), as happened in 1995 IOTL when thirteen people were on orbit with Soyuz TM-20 and -21 docked at Mir during STS-67. ITTL, Alpha’s current minimal volume (one pressurised module only) means its maximum crew is currently limited by how many supplies can be squeezed in with the crew, so although the Soyuz-ACRV could allow up to three people, Alpha will have an initial permanent crew of two.


Mission 1K4: Re-entry, 26th March 1999


20th March 1999 02:30 Moscow Time (T-8h09m):

Fueling of the Energia 7L core stage commences at Baikonur Pad 38.

20th March 1999 07:30 Moscow Time (T-3h9m):

Fueling of the Energia stack is completed. Air temperature is -8 degrees Celsius.

20th March 1999 07:47 Moscow Time (T-2h52m):

Loading of liquid oxygen into the Buran orbiter’s ODA propulsion system is completed.

20th March 1999 07:55 Moscow Time (T-2h44m):

Buran mission 4K1 crew arrives at Baikonur Site 110 Pad 38 and enter the crew trolly system.

20th March 1999 08:23 Moscow Time (T-2h26m):

Commander Ivan Ivanovich Bachurin enters Buran, the first crew member to enter.

20th March 1999 08:45 Moscow Time (T-1h54m):

Flight Engineer Vladimir Nikolayevich Dezhurov enters Buran, the last crew member to enter.

20th March 1999 09:17 Moscow Time (T-1h22m):

Buran BO crew hatch is closed and locked.

20th March 1999 10:29 Moscow Time (T-10m):

Countdown switches to automatic control. All systems nominal.

20th March 1999 10:39 Moscow Time (T-10s):

Energia 7L RD-0120 core engine ignition.

20th March 1999 10:39 Moscow Time (T-6s):

Energia 7L RD-170 Blok-A booster engines ignition.

20th March 1999 10:39 Moscow Time (T-5s):

A block of ice massing almost 5kg is shaken loose from the body of the Energia core near the top of the liquid hydrogen tank between core and the nose of the Buran orbiter. This block is significantly larger than the 2mm thickness dictated by mission rules and the 1.7mm maximum thickness predicted by pre-launch analysis.

20th March 1999 10:39 Moscow Time (T-2s):

The ice falls 35.6m before ricocheting from the body of the core stage to impact the belly of Buran at the junction of two black TZMK-25 thermal protection tiles attached to the leading edge of the ONI-II antenna hatch, hitting a glancing blow at a velocity of 26 m/s. One of the impacted tiles is shed. The second tile is loosened by the impact but remains attached. The underlying felt pads remain in place, but the quartz fibre seal along the edge of the ONI-II hatch is damaged. This impact, coming near the bottom of the orbiter and between the orbiter and rocket bodies, goes unrecorded by cameras at the launch pad.

20th March 1999 10:39 Moscow Time (T-0s):

Lift-off of Buran/Energia 7L.

20th March 1999 10:41 Moscow Time (T+2m8s):

Aerodynamic forces, acceleration and vibration cause the second impacted tile to fall loose of the ONI-II hatch. As it falls, it pulls with it a section of the underlying felt pad, exposing a 55cm^2 section of the aluminium airframe.

20th March 1999 10:42 Moscow Time (T+2m26s):

Blok-A booster shut-down and separation.

20th March 1999 10:46 Moscow Time (T+7m47s):

Core stage engine shut-down and separation.

20th March 1999 10:48 Moscow Time (T+10m03s):

DOM engines fire, boosting Buran into a suborbital trajectory with an apogee of 156 km.

20th March 1999 11:14 Moscow Time (T+35m12s):

DOM engines fire a second time, circularising Buran into a low Earth orbit.


26th March 1999 10:33 Moscow Time (T+6d23h56m):

Buran undocks from the axial APAS-89 port of Mir-2 Yedinstvo USM-1 module. Separation speed is 0.1m/s.

26th March 1999 10:39 Moscow Time (T+7d00h00m):

At 20m separation, the DO verniers briefly fire, increasing separation speed.

26th March 1999 12:17 Moscow Time (T+7d01h38m):

The ONI-I and ONI-II antennas are retracted in preparation for re-entry, cutting off real-time SHF communications with TsUP Mission Control via the Luch-2 relay satellites. Communications with TsUP are now only possible via VHF and UHF links when over Soviet ground stations. This means the crew will remain out of direct contact with TsUP until after they exit the re-entry black-out.

26th March 1999 12:25 Moscow Time (T+7d01h46m):

The ONI-II hatch on the orbiter’s belly is closed. The two missing tiles and damaged seal have gone unnoticed during the mission, as they had remained oriented away from the space station.

26th March 1999 12:38 Moscow Time (T+7d01h59m):

Buran’s payload bay doors are closed and locked.

26th March 1999 13:18 Moscow Time (T+7d02h29m):

At 20km separation from Mir-2, Buran fires its port DOM engine for 155s, initiating de-orbit.

26th March 1999 13:50 Moscow Time (T+7d03h11m):

Buran reaches the atmospheric entry interface at an altitude of 120km.

26th March 1999 13:53 Moscow Time (T+7d03h14m):

The three hydrazine-powered Auxiliary Power Units (VSUs) are activated and begin providing hydraulic power to the aerodynamic control actuators.

26th March 1999 13:55 Moscow Time (T+7d03h16m):

A plasma arc begins to form in the gap between the two tiles immediately in front of the damaged section of the ONI-II hatch. Plasma at a temperature of around 1000 degrees Celsius impinges directly onto the aluminium skin along the exposed seam of the hatch.

26th March 1999 14:01 Moscow Time (T+7d03h22m):

Buran enters the period of maximum heating. The plasma temperature at the ONI-II hatch is now approaching 1500 degrees Celsius. Part of the hatch skin has burned through and plasma is now entering the bay containing the ONI-II antenna itself. Temperature sensors in the bay and the neighbouring VSU Pressurised Instrument Compartment signal alarms to the Command Compartment. This is the first indication the crew have of a problem.

26th March 1999 14:02 Moscow Time (T+7d03h23m):

Plasma ignites material inside the ONI-II bay. The temperature sensors fail, cutting off the alarm to the flight deck. Spacecraft Commander Ivan Bachurin takes manual control of the shuttle and attempts to manoeuvre to reduce heating on the aft belly of the orbiter. However, this is of limited effectiveness as he is constrained to stay within a limited angle-of-attack in order to brake the spacecraft’s velocity.

26th March 1999 14:03 Moscow Time (T+7d03h24m):

The ONI-II hatch hinges fail and the hatch separates from the spacecraft. The ONI-II antenna is ripped out, impacting the aft wall of the bay and dislodging several more belly tiles as it exits the spacecraft. Plasma quickly burns through the aft wall and enters the airframe.

26th March 1999 14:04 Moscow Time (T+7d03h25m):

The VSU Instrument Module ceases functioning as re-entry plasma melts its components. Hydrazine fuel in one of the three VSU power units ignites. The fire suppression system automatically triggers, but is itself damaged and is unable to extinguish the fire.

26th March 1999 14:05 Moscow Time (T+7d03h26m):

The fire has spread to the second VSU and enters the ODU propulsion system’s Base Unit. The ODU oxygen tank is compromised and bursts, but the relatively low pressure of the gaseous oxygen in the tank at this stage of the mission means the force of the explosion is insufficient to compromise the outer skin of the vehicle. However, the released oxygen intensifies the fire, which is now out of control.

26th March 1999 14:06 Moscow Time (T+7d03h27m):

The third and final VSU power unit succumbs to the flames and fails. Buran is now without hydraulic power and the aerodynamic controls are rendered useless. In the Control Compartment, Bachurin attempts to use the RSU reaction control thrusters to maintain the orbiter’s attitude, but these obtained their oxidiser from the now destroyed ODU oxygen tank, and so are unresponsive.

26th March 1999 14:07 Moscow Time (T+7d03h28m):

With all control lost, Buran begins to tumble. Aerodynamic forces tear the shuttle apart and the spacecraft breaks up over North Africa. Speed at break-up was too high for ejection. All seven crew members are lost.


Epilogue: The Legacy of Buran


"Flowers Pack" by Godzilko via

The Buran Incident Investigation

The tragic loss of Buran and her crew in 1999 spelt the end of the Soviet shuttle programme. Already facing criticism over high costs and limited utility, the destruction of the only man-rated orbiter ruled out any near-term return to flight for the system. This grounding was soon confirmed to be permanent, with the Soviet Space Agency ruling out upgrading Burya or the other uncompleted orbiters to flightworthy status even before the cause of the accident was confirmed.

Even as the five Soviet victims of the disaster were being buried in the Kremlin wall, the investigation into the cause of the disaster was well underway. Given the high-profile nature of the disaster, the resulting accident investigation was conducted with a rigour and openness unusual in Soviet inquiries. In the light of the loss of two US citizens, NASA were invited to send a team to participate in the investigation, with the Americans given unprecedented access to Soviet records and facilities. This cooperation was reciprocated, with US resources and diplomacy being deployed to help recover wreckage from the orbiter, which was spread across remote locations in a number of north African nations.

When the investigation team published their final report in October 1999, it confirmed and ice impact on the thermal protection tiles at launch as the primary cause of the accident. Although the impact itself had not been observed, launch day footage did show large chunks of ice detaching from the Energia core, whilst instrument data recovered from the wreckage clearly showed the trouble starting at the ONI-II bay. From this information, investigators soon pruned their fault trees down to a scenario in which ice impact caused a breach in the thermal protection system close to the ONI-II hatch.

The report noted that damage from ice impacts had been identified as a risk as early as Buran’s maiden flight in 1988, but that the only mitigating actions taken had been to increase CCTV coverage at the pad to watch for ice build-up before launch. Dedicated ice inspection teams, which had long been standard for NASA shuttle launches, had been used for Burya’s 2K1 flight, but had then been dropped as the unpopular duty was considered unnecessary given the success of the initial launches. As time passed with no serious incident, the risk had become normalised in the minds of the mission directors, to the point where even the TV camera network was no longer maintained to a high standard.

Also coming in for criticism were a number of design issues that had contributed to the disaster. Foremost of these were the decision to arrange Buran’s belly thermal protection tiles in rows perpendicular to the airflow, rather than at an angle as on the US shuttle. This simplified installation and maintenance, but it made possible the formation of plasma arcs at the junction of tiles, without which the damaged ONI-II hatch may have been able to withstand re-entry. The inclusion of the hatch itself in the vital belly heat shield, which unlike penetrations for the landing gear would have to be opened before re-entry, was another area highlighted as an unnecessary risk. Also criticised was the use of unstable hydrazine in the VSU hydraulic power system, and the use of common propellant tanks for the main ODU engines and the RSU control thrusters.

Aside from these specific technical issues relating to the 1K4 disaster, the Report criticised the general state of the shuttle programme in no uncertain terms. Over the lean years of the early and mid-1990s, the shuttle’s supporting infrastructure had been allowed to degrade to a dangerous level. An in-depth review of the status of Pad 38 found several hundred potentially dangerous faults in the towers and their fueling systems, as well as at the MIK orbiter processing facilities, whilst the long periods between launches had led to a serious degradation in personnel skills. At least a dozen incidents were identified that could have led to a loss of mission on earlier flights.

In the wake of the report a number of high profile managers were arrested and sentenced to hard labour, whilst in the US, MirCorp quickly folded, becoming the subject of a Congressional hearing over their alleged “reckless” exposure of US citizens to unacceptable risks. All plans to fly future paying “space tourists” were cancelled indefinitely.

However, the NASA team felt that this punitive response failed to get to the underlying root causes, and was in fact part of the problem, contributing to an endemic culture of scapegoating within the Soviet space programme. This led to a situation in which virtually no-one (excepting the cosmonauts themselves) was prepared to take personal responsibility for their actions and how it affected overall mission success, in case they should later be penalised for problems that might arise. As a defensive mechanism, individual technicians and team leaders therefore performed only those tasks they had been specifically directed to undertake by higher authority. This American impression of a bureaucratic, box-ticking Soviet safety culture was to have ongoing repercussions on the possibilities for future joint US-Soviet space projects.

NASA Learns the Lessons

The Buran disaster was a wake-up call not only for the Soviets, but also for NASA. For several years there had be warnings from within the agency that the pressure to increase the pace of launches in order to get Alpha completed as quickly as possible was placing an unsustainable strain on the Agency and its workers. Fears that the painful lessons of Challenger were being forgotten had been largely dismissed by NASA management, but the failings uncovered by the Buran Incident Investigation shone a new light on NASA’s own practices. One area to receive particular attention was the prevailing attitude to TPS impacts.

As the BII Final Report had highlighted, NASA had long conducted dedicated anti-ice inspections before launch, and so a repeat of the ice strike that had doomed Buran was considered unlikely. However, pieces of insulating foam shaken loose from the shuttle’s External Tank had been observed impacting the orbiters on almost every shuttle launch to date. Although a number of engineers had flagged this as a potential risk to the integrity of the heat shield, there had never been a serious incident recorded, and so the risk had been classified as minimal. Now, with Buran offering a grim example of the consequences of TPS damage, the analyses and tests were repeated, and came to a worrying conclusion: in certain circumstances foam strikes could indeed cause enough damage to lead to a loss-of-mission during re-entry.

This was just one of a number of issues highlighted in a wide-ranging NASA report on shuttle safety that was published in March 2000. NASA immediately took action to mitigate the most pressing issues, including new methods for inspecting and fixing the thermal protection system on-orbit, as well as advancing existing plans to replace the shuttle’s hydrazine-powered APUs with a safer electrically powered system [1]. They also expanded the schedule for completion of Alpha in order to reduce the number of missions per year. Under the new plan, the Initial International Crew Capability, with all major European and Japanese component in place, would be achieved by early 2002. The Common Core/Habitation module (a virtual copy of the “Destiny” Common Core/Lab with dedicated crew support facilities) would be now launched in mid-2003, whilst the development of a US replacement for the Soyuz-ACRV lifeboats would be accelerated, allowing the expansion of the permanent crew from three to six to take place in 2004.

However, a decision on the most important issue - the long-postponed development of a safer successor to the shuttle - was held off until the arrival of a new NASA Administrator under a new President in 2001.


Mesh modified from “ISS (Mesh Only)” by ChrisKuhn

Moving On from the Disaster

Despite the terrible grief felt throughout the Soviet space programme at the loss of their comrades, to a large extent most of VKA’s ongoing projects remained unaffected. The huge expense of the shuttle system meant that it had already been largely decoupled from the ongoing Mir-2 programme, and the reliable Soyuz and Zenit rockets continued to send crews and cargo to the station despite the loss of Buran. Plans to complete the assembly of Mir-2 were slowed as schedules were reassessed and funds were re-prioitised to long-delayed ground infrastructure upgrades, but despite this the launch via Zenit of ESA’s Magellan module went ahead as planned in April 2000. Later the same year a modified Progress M2 spacecraft delivered the second airlock module, SO-2 “Poisk”, to the station, with the first lab module, “Nauka”, delivered in May 2001. It was at this point however that the loss of the shuttle’s heavy lift capability made itself felt.


To expand Mir-2 further, the station would need more power. This was originally planned to be provided by a second truss section, NEP-2, mounting two large “solar dynamic” parabolic dishes that would focus sunlight to heat a working fluid and drive a turbine, offering improved power-to-weight performance compared with photovoltaic arrays. This large, complex system was intended to be delivered by Buran just as NEP-1 had been, and although it had been designed with the possibility of splitting it between several Zenit launches, the implications of actually having to do this were giving programme engineers and managers severe headaches. However, it was soon realised that there was another possibility: Energia.

Energia’s Last Hurrah

The Energia carrier rocket for the next planned Buran mission, vehicle 8L, had already been 90% completed at the time of the loss of Buran. Although the assembly lines for new Energia cores were being shut down by 2000, the teams and material needed to complete the 8L core were still in place at Baikonur, allowing the final vehicle to be assembled at relatively little cost. A proposal was quickly put together at RKK Energia to use this core as the basis for an unmanned, cargo-only version of the booster. Initially this was planned to be the long-discussed Energia-M variant, but it was quickly decided to instead simply use larger Energia-T configuration. Although massively over-sized to deliver NEP-2 to orbit, Energia-T would require virtually no modifications to the 8L vehicle.

To place NEP-2 into orbit and guide it to a docking with the space station it would be necessary to provide a space tug. NEP-2 was far too massive to be carried by a Progress M2 service module, and so Soviet engineers turned back to the solution they had used for the very first Energia launch in 1987: Chelomie’s venerable TKS. The last of the 77K modules originally built for Mir, 77KSI, was dusted off at Fili KKP and in early 2001 renovations began to turn it into an autonomous space tug.

Energia-T2 (the initial launch having been retrospectively designated as T1) was finally rolled out to Pad 38 in May 2003. This final lift-off on 8th May completed a perfect record of eight successful launches out of eight for Glushko’s giant rocket, in stark contrast to the record of the N-1 launcher that it had been designed to replace. Unlike the case in 1987, this time the TKS-derived space tug operated correctly, no doubt helped by its more traditional placement at the bottom of the payload stack rather than at the top, facing downwards. 77KSI successfully inserted NEP-2 into a low parking orbit before initiating an orbital trajectory that would see it rendezvous with Mir-2 two days later.

The first docking attempt on 10th May was aborted due to a spurious accelerometer reading. This was later found to be an instrumentation fault, but mission controllers were taking no chances. NEP-2 by far the heaviest payload ever to attempt an automatic docking as the active partner, and with its many modules and appendages Mir-2 presented a complex target. However, the second attempt on 11th May was successful, with NEP-2 easing in to soft-dock at Yedinstvo’s axial docking port. Two days later, its job completed, 77KSI detached from NEP-2 and was commanded to a destructive re-entry, whilst at the station cosmonauts Usachev and Malenchenko, together with ESA guest cosmonaut Léopold Eyharts, used the European Robotic Arm to move NEP-2 to its final location opposite NEP-1 on Yedinstvo’s Y+ mid-point docking port. Within a month the new module’s solar furnace would begin supplying power to the station, finally providing the resources needed to support the completion of the station.

Looking to the Future

As of 2005, with Space Station Alpha fully assembled and Mir-2 nearing completion, thoughts are turning to the next step in humanity’s exploration of space. With the Soviet economy booming on the back of high oil prices and the US and Western Europe enjoying a period of sustained growth, there appears to be a rare convergence of political ambition and financial means.


For the US, the most significant development has been the decision by the Bush administration to refocus NASA’s efforts to rely more upon the commercial sector. In 2002 NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced that, following the deployment of the Horizon ACRVs to Alpha [2], NASA would aim to transfer logistical support for the station to the private sector by 2010, using unmanned vehicles launched via the new Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and other commercial rockets, including the European Ariane and Soviet Zenit.[3] With cargo launches thus outsourced, the aging and expensive Space Shuttle would finally be retired, with its role in launching American crews into space taken up by a new Crewed Space Vehicle. Although a derivative of Lockheed’s Horizon spaceplane is considered a front-runner, its selection is far from guaranteed as, in a departure from NASA’s usual procurement methods, the CSV uses an innovative spiral development programme. This sees fixed-cost milestones replacing the more traditional cost-plus approach, culminating in a fly-off of the two most promising designs in 2009. As well as supporting LEO crew rotations of up to seven astronauts, the CSV is also expected to replace Horizon in the roll of Alpha’s lifeboat. More ambitiously, CSV is being designed to support missions further into space, carried aloft by a new Energia-class launcher, the so-called Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle (SDLV). Currently undergoing Phase-A studies, but planned to launch as soon as 2012, the SDLV will open up the possibility of a return to lunar orbit, to be potentially followed by lunar space stations and renewed landings by 2020, depending on future budget allocations.[4]

As has often been the case throughout the history of manned spaceflight, Soviet plans to a large extent mirror those in the US. Even before Buran’s first flight, the Soviets had been considering developing a large capsule-based crew vehicle to replace Soyuz. In the tumultuous economic circumstances of the late ‘80s and ‘90s these plans had been put on hold, but with the loss of Buran and the improved economic situation in the USSR they have been revisited. In 2003 the Soviet Space Agency confirmed plans to push forward with development of a modernised version of the Zarya reusable space capsule that had first been proposed in the late ‘80s. Launched by Zenit, Zarya would carry twice the crew of Soyuz and would be designed from the start to support future deep space missions.

In parallel to the Zarya decision, the Soviets were also considering the development of a new family of heavy lift rockets to finally replace Proton whilst matching the capabilities of the SDLV. Although the initial proposal from RKK Energia was to once again push for Energia-M, VKA felt that the expensive infrastructure needed to support the large hydrogen-oxygen core stage, as well as the lack of flexibility to scale down the design for smaller payloads, made this unattractive. Instead they announced in 2004 plans for a new Zenit-derived all-kerolox rocket system named “Don”.[5] By clustering one, three or five Zenit-style boosters with a kerolox upper stage, the Don system would be scalable, with the largest variant matching SDLV, being able lift up to 63 tonnes to Mir-2’s orbit.

Talks are already underway between NASA, VKA and ESA about the opportunities these new developments may open up. Ideas for an international lunar programme are being floated, including a jointly built Lunar Orbital Station, or even a surface Moonbase supported by US and Soviet landers. Further ahead, Mars beckons, with Soviet and American scientists investigating nuclear powered ion drives and in-situ resource utilisation technologies that might allow a manned expedition as soon as 2025. After more than thirty years stuck in low Earth orbit, humanity is once again turning outwards towards the manned exploration of deep space.

The Shuttle in Perspective

The Soviet space shuttle programme was created at the height of the Cold War as counter-move to a threat from the US shuttle that wasn’t fully understood and which never in fact existed. Militaristic fantasies of the Americans using their shuttle to bomb Moscow or pluck Soviet space stations from orbit drove the Communist leadership to order their own version to maintain the balance of power, but beyond this they had no real vision for how the shuttle would be used. Energia’s Chief Designer in the 1970s, Valentin Glushko, saw the shuttle as merely one more payload for his giant, Moon-aimed rocket; something to persuade the military to pick up the bill rather than being an objective in its own right. As well as the expense and technical complexity of the system, it is this status as a solution in search of a problem that helps to explain the long delays in getting Buran and Burya into space. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, it became even harder to justify the enormous costs needed to maintain a system that never managed to truly match its American rival in flight rates or usefulness, flying only six times in total. In the light of the Buran disaster it’s easy to castigate the programme as an unjustifiable and senseless waste of both money and human lives. And yet…

Despite all of their shortcomings, all of their costs and tragic consequences, these elegant spaceplanes had an undeniable romance to them. Even when times were hardest, as during the 1990 coup or the 1995 financial crash, surveys of Soviet public opinion repeatedly found large majorities in favour of keeping the shuttles flying. In their turn, Soviet space planners spared no effort to somehow find the resources needed to keep the shuttles flying, even at the cost of robbing Peter to pay Paul. With every launch, Buran and Burya proved that the Soviet Union was still a world-class power, justifying their people’s pride. The shuttles were not just spacecraft; they were national heroes, beacons of hope. Even today, if you visit Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonautics, you will find large crowds of adults and children flocking to see Burya up close, imagining themselves at the controls as fearless cosmonauts exploring the universe.

Buran is gone, but her dream lives on.


[1] There were plans IOTL post-Columbia to replace shuttle’s hydrazine APUs with electrical units (called the Advanced Hydraulic Power System, AHPS), but the decision was apparently postponed until the planned retirement of the system made it moot. Here, with the APUs being a major contributing factor to Buran’s demise, and with a softer retirement date for the shuttle ITTL, NASA and its overseers in government place more emphasis on getting this upgrade done.

[2] Horizon a lifting body based upon OTL’s X-38. The decision to go ahead with a space station without long-term Soviet involvement meant that the US committed to developing their own lifeboat for Alpha in 1994. This programme used funds that IOTL were spent on the X-33 project, which does not exist ITTL.

[3] This is a combination of the OTL Orbital Space Plane and Crew Exploration Vehicle/Orion, tending more towards the former than the latter. The overall programme borrows a lot from OTL’s Vision for Space Exploration (especially the free-market friendly leveraging commercial space aspects that Griffin largely ditched IOTL to pursue “Apollo on steroids”), but with less emphasis on the Moon as a firm target. Without OTL’s Columbia disaster, there’s less of an impression that NASA needs radical redirection.

[4] Yes, this is basically Shuttle-C/NLS/Ares-V/DIRECT Jupiter/SLS. What, you think there’s any chance whatsoever that Congress is going to allow the shuttle to be retired without funding a replacement jobs programme? ASB! As with its various OTL incarnations, don’t put too much emphasis on the planned launch dates - to its government sponsors, its success as a programme is measured more in people employed (and votes received) than in missions flown.

[5] This is basically a version of the Sodruzhestvo rocket proposed IOTL, or indeed the recently announced Energia 5VR.