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By Anatoly Zak
Despite its looks, Buran was not a facsimile of the US shuttle
Some 20 years ago, on 30 September 1988, many readers of the Pravda newspaper - the official mouthpiece of the Soviet communist party - could not believe their eyes.
Published somewhat inconspicuously on the second page, there was a photo depicting the familiar shape of the US space shuttle, but with Soviet insignia on its wings.
Finally, years of rumours about a Soviet "copy" of the shuttle had been confirmed.
However, the official Soviet press was quick to point out that despite its superficial resemblance to the US counterpart, the Russian shuttle, dubbed Buran or "snowstorm", was better and more capable.
Within days, the new ship got a chance to prove it.
On November 15, 1988, as snowy clouds and winds were swirling around Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Buran orbiter, attached to its giant Energia rocket, thundered into the gloomy early morning sky.
" They obliterated this crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme "
Despite the kind of strong winds that would rule out any launch or landing attempt by the US space shuttle, Buran touched down just 3m off the runway centreline.
And this planet-wide ballet was performed with its "pilots" safely on the ground.
Born of paranoia
Buran's pioneering mission was the culmination of an effort by more than 600 Soviet institutions which, since 1976, had secretly laboured on this largest of Soviet space projects.
Upon the spacecraft's triumphant landing, the Soviet newspapers promised a new era in space exploration. Few could predict at the time that it would be Buran's only mission.
Unlike Nasa, Soviet developers never had any grand illusions about replacing traditional rockets with a reusable space truck.
Instead, the Soviet shuttle was conceived primarily as a "symmetrical response" to the perceived military threat from America's winged orbiters.
Years after a sceptical Pentagon had given up on the shuttle, even as a delivery truck for spy satellites, the Russian officials continued whispering to journalists that the US orbiter had a secret capability - to make an undetected "dive" into the Earth's atmosphere and suddenly glide over Moscow dropping nuclear bombs.
Never mind that such a scenario was not supported by physics or by common sense.
Energia-Buran's chief architect, Valentin Glushko, hardly tried to educate warmongers at the Politburo about the questionable merits of the re-usable orbiter as a weapon.
Glushko was one of the first generation of Soviet rocket pioneers, who were experimenting in the 1930s under the tutelage of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky - one of the "fathers" of spaceflight. Like many of his contemporaries, he had little interest in designing weapons.
He did dream, however, about building a permanent base on the surface of the Moon.
Unfortunately, after losing the Moon race to America in 1969, Soviet leaders had little appetite for another deep-space adventure.
The launch and test facility where the Energia rocket first took off in 1987
Still, Glushko probably hoped to exploit Cold War paranoia about the threat of the US shuttle as an opportunity to lay a detour road to the Moon, and possibly even to Mars.
Glushko carefully steered the Soviet shuttle project away from being a carbon copy of the American design, which could not be easily modified.
Instead, he proposed a winged orbiter along with a fully functional rocket which could carry any cargo - including lunar landers, orbital tugs and even pieces of a Martian expeditionary complex.
In the end, Kremlin bosses had committed to the monumental expense of money and human talent with only vague hopes that real tasks for the grandiose vehicle would emerge as it came online.
Instead, after long delays and cost overruns, the Buran appeared on the scene in the last act of the Cold War and amid a crumbling Soviet economy.
The Berlin Wall had come down just a year after its first flight, and the Soviet Defence Ministry was suddenly more preoccupied with resettling thousands of troops returning from Eastern Europe than with servicing orbital anti-missile platforms and deploying killer satellites in space.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 sealed the fate of the Energia-Buran system.
There was a flicker of hope for Buran's giant booster - Energia - when Russia joined the effort to build the International Space Station (ISS).
Still unfinished today, after a decade of efforts and dozens of assembly flights, the ISS could have been hauled into orbit by only a few Energia boosters, had international partners adopted it into the program, say the rocket's proponents.
In the mid-1990s, a flight-ready Buran orbiter, which made the historic trip in 1988, had been mounted on the back of a fully assembled Energia rocket at Baikonur's Building 112.
This eye-popping display became a popular stop for journalists and foreign tourists, who periodically "invaded" Baikonur for high-profile launches.
To the untrained eye, the gargantuan rocket and its orbiter looked all but ready for a rollout to the launch pad.
Last resting place
In 2001, this spectacle, combined with the optimistic and mis-translated comments of a Russian guide, had such a profound effect on one Western reporter that he filed a story claiming that the Energia-Buran programme was about to be re-started.
The article proved that a decade after its demise, the Buran had already become a legend.
However, if one looked closely in Building 112 it was possible to see water dripping from the high ceiling on a rainy day and accumulating on the floor, under the dead torsos of Energia rockets.
The keeper of the facility, who showed reporters around the building, said that he could hardly find money to send repair men to patch up the giant roof.
Rescue workers search the devastated hangar at Baikonur
Eventually, a repair team, believed to include eight people, did make it to the roof, climbing on top of Building 112 on May 12, 2002.
According to eyewitnesses, at about 0920 local time, the entire structure shook violently, as if hit by an earthquake, and enormous pieces of debris plunged dozens of metres to the ground below.
They obliterated this crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme.
But the Energia-Buran programme did leave a lasting legacy.
The cavernous launch facilities at Baikonur and a state-of-the-art mission control centre in Korolev have continued serving the Russian space programme and its international partners.
The rocket technology developed for Energia-Buran has been put to use in other launchers.
A mighty RD-170 engine, originally developed for the first stage of Energia, today powers the Ukrainian Zenit rocket.
This engine's scaled-down descendants - the RD-180 and RD-190 - have been adopted for the US Atlas booster and Russia's next-generation Angara rockets.
While the US space shuttle will soon share the fate of the Buran orbiter - as a museum exhibit - emerging plans for lunar exploration have revived concepts of super-heavy rockets, on both sides of the Atlantic.
If they are ever built, their creators will have to re-trace the path once made by Valentin Glushko and his colleagues.
From: Coggeshall, John C. (JSC-MA)
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama released today the education plan he would enact if elected. The full 15-page plan includes a variety of proposals, including reforming early education programs. The last section of the plan, titled “A Commitment to Fiscal Responsibility” explains how he would pay for these initiatives. The passage of relevance here: “The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years,” among other steps. According to MSNBC, Obama would leave in place $500 million/year for Constellation’s “manufacturing and technology base”, but would otherwise transfer the funding to the education effort. None of the campaign’s official statements or other media reports indicate any alternative measures the campaign would take to address what, on its face, would appear to be a five-year delay in the introduction of Ares 1, Orion, and the other main components of NASA’s current exploration architecture.
(A potentially ironic item, depending on your opinion on the importance of Constellation: one other section of the Obama education plan is titled “Make Math and Science Education a National Priority”.)
The Republican National Committee has criticized the move to delay Constellation, The Hill reports, quoting RNC spokesman Danny Diaz: “It is ironic that Barack Obama’s plan to help our children reach for the stars is financed in part by slashing a program that helps us learn about those very same stars.”
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit Saturday, carrying a giant Japanese lab addition to the international space station along with something more mundane — a toilet pump.
Discovery roared into a brilliant blue sky dotted with a few clouds at 5:02 p.m., right on time.
The shuttle's trip to the space station should take two days. Once there, Discovery's crew will unload and install the $1 billion lab and hand-deliver a specially made pump for the outpost's finicky toilet.
The school-bus-size lab, named Kibo, Japanese for hope, will be the biggest room by far at the space station and bring the orbiting outpost to three-quarters of completion.
"It's a gorgeous day to launch," NASA's launch director, Mike Leinbach, told the astronauts just before liftoff, wishing them good luck and Godspeed. Commander Mark Kelly noted that Kibo was the "hope for the space station," then radioed: "Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth!"
Nearly 400 Japanese journalists, space program officials and other guests jammed NASA's launch site, their excitement growing as the hours, then minutes counted down.
Their enthusiasm was catchy.
"This is a real milestone," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.
The Japanese lab is 37 feet long and more than 32,000 pounds, and fills Discovery's entire payload bay. The first part of the lab flew up in March, and the third and final section will be launched next year.
The entire lab, with all its pieces, cost more than $2 billion.
A large political contingent was also on hand led by Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is newly married to Kelly, Discovery's commander. They invited numerous bigwigs from Arizona and Washington.
Giffords acknowledged being nervous, far more so than the day she was elected to Congress in 2006.
"It's a risky job. I'm pleased that the vehicle's in good shape, the weather is beautiful. They've had no problems," she told The Associated Press. "But you don't really relax" until the shuttle is back from its two-week mission.
Kelly's brother, Scott, didn't need an invitation to the launch — he's also a space shuttle commander. They're identical twins.
Scott Kelly said it was more nerve-racking to watch his brother launch than to be strapped in himself. Their parents and 91-year-old grandmother are always anxious on launch day, he said.
"I know my grandmother, she would rather I work at Wal-Mart," Scott Kelly said, chuckling, before liftoff.
Three spacewalks are planned during Discovery's 14-day flight, to install Kibo, replace an empty nitrogen-gas tank and try out various cleaning methods on a clogged solar-wing rotating joint. The shuttle crew is made up of six Americans and one Japanese.
The space station's two Russian residents, meanwhile, will put in the new toilet pump. For more than a week, the three occupants have had to manually flush the toilet with extra water several times a day, a time-consuming, water-wasting job.
NASA and Russian space officials are hoping that the pump — which was rushed to Kennedy Space Center from Moscow just this past week — gets the toilet back in normal working order.
One of Discovery's astronauts, Gregory Chamitoff, will move into the space station for a six-month stay. He'll replace Garrett Reisman, who will return to Earth aboard the shuttle.
Also hitching a ride to the space station is Buzz Lightyear. The 12-inch (30-centimeter) action figure — made famous in the 1995 Disney film "Toy Story" — is part of NASA's "toys in space" educational program for elementary students and their teachers.
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