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In the Soviet Union, interest in a reusable space plane began in the 1950s. After several incomplete design projects, the Soviets revived the effort in the 1980s. At the time of the early U.S. Space Shuttle launches, the Soviets were testing an unmanned scale model shuttle.

In 1983 the Australian Air Force caught this rare glimpse of early Soviet shuttle development. The photograph shows the recovery of the BOR-4 (Unpiloted Orbital Rocket Plane) test vehicle.

Courtesy of the Royal Australian Air Force and the Griffith Observatory

Recovery of BOR-4 in Indian Ocean
149k jpeg


The Soviet Union launched its first full-scale reusable space shuttle, Buran ("Snowstorm"), on November 15, 1988. Although Buran was tested extensively in the atmosphere with trained pilots, the first and only orbital flight was made without a crew.

Buran was launched by Energia, the largest Soviet launch vehicle. Two Burans were manufactured, but after the sole unpiloted mission, the program was canceled.

Courtesy of Art Dula

Buran on the pad
202 k jpeg


Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia, presented these models of the Soviet Buran spacecraft and Energia launch vehicle to the Smithsonian in 1992 to commemorate the first launches of Energia in 1987 and Buran in 1988.

Gift of the Russian Federation

Buran & Energia models
SI#: 97-16270-2


Not everyone in the Soviet space community was pleased with the decision to develop a reusable space shuttle. Many scientists and engineers felt that Buran would detract from already well-established and successful space programs.

In this letter to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, dated a month after the launch of Buran, Soviet engineer and cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov outlined his own, largely financial arguments against proceeding with the program.

Courtesy of Emmet, Toni, and Tessa Stephenson

Feoktistov letter
257 k jpeg

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