Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle

The US Space Shuttle program is dead and buried. The orbiters can now be found in their permanent homes in the Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and the California Science Center. The launch pads used by the shuttles over a career of 135 launches are being repurposed for vehicles from SpaceX and the Space Launch System. Yes, some of the hardware and technology will be reused for NASA’s next generation of heavy launch vehicles, but the orbiter – a beautiful brick of a space plane – is forever grounded.

The Space Shuttle was a product of the cold war, and although the orbiters themselves were never purely military craft, the choices made during the design of the Space Shuttle were heavily influenced by the US Air Force. The Soviet Union was keenly aware the United States was building a ‘space bomber’ and quickly began development of their own manned spaceplane.

While this Soviet Shuttle would not be as successful as its American counterpart — the single completed craft would only fly once, unmanned — the story of this spaceplane is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever told. And it ends with a spaceship that was arguably even more capable than its American twin.

The X-20 Dyna-Soar would have launched vertically on a Titan missile.
The X-20 Dyna-Soar project was cancelled by the US Air Force before a prototype vehicle was built.

The idea of a spaceplane that can land at runways around the world has been a part of the American space program since the very beginning. In 1957, the US Air Force started the X-20 Dyna-Soar project to develop a manned space plane for orbital reconnaissance, bombing, and intercepting, repairing, or sabotaging satellites in orbit.

The Dyna-Soar project would end before a vehicle was built, but the idea of a reusable spaceplane was there. It may not have not been a good idea: the Dyna-Soar, Blue Gemini, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory were all projects abandoned by the US Air Force for lack of a clear goal.

The Soviet Union, however, always believed a military installation in space would have a purpose. Several military soviet space stations were flown under in the early to mid 1970s, with one firing a 23mm or 30mm cannon as a test for the self-defense capabilities of the station.

In 1974, Vladimir Smirnov, head of the Soviet Military-Industrial Commission, was organizing the priorities for the next few years in a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev. It was always in Smirnov’s best interests to overstate the capabilities of the United States; fear means funding, and whether that fear is directed toward congress or the head of the party is inconsequential. In his report Smirnov told Brezhnev the ‘Americans were working on a winged space vehicle… capable of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo.’

The Military Applications of a Space Shuttle

The design of NASA’s space shuttle, given what we know about the 133 successful missions, was very odd. The control surfaces of the Space Shuttle orbiters were larger than they needed to be, especially considering that every pound of spacecraft means one less pound of payload. The reason for these gigantic control surfaces is the US Air Force’s involvement with the design of the shuttle. The Air Force wanted a vehicle that would launch north from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, do something over Soviet territory, fly over the south pole, and land back in California after one orbit.

This mission – which was never carried out – would influence the design of the Space Shuttle orbiter more than any other mission. During this 90-minute mission, the Earth would rotate under the shuttle. Launching and landing in California would require a cross-range capability of about 1,500 miles for a glider with aerodynamic properties similar to a brick.

The vertical stabilizer of the Space Shuttle orbiter was bigger than it needed to be, the wings were larger than any mission would require. It could be said that the military requirements of the Space Shuttle orbiter is what would make it hilariously expensive and inherently unsafe for manned space flight. Still, in 1974 the Americans were working on a space plane with military applications that could fly over Moscow, drop a bomb, and fly away to safety.

In retrospect, the idea of a space bomber seems ludicrous. In 1974, both the US and the Soviet Union had a vast array of intercontinental ballistic missiles at their disposal that could launch in minutes and deliver dozens of warheads to targets on the other side of the world.

The Origins of the Soviet Shuttle

The cold war was a tit-for-tat exercise for the US and Soviet Union. When the Soviets funded the Viet Kong, dragging the US into a decade long war in south east asia, the United States would fund the Mujahideen, forcing the Soviets to wage a pointless war in Afghanistan. When the US Air Force began developing a small, spaceplane with the Dyna-Soar project, the Soviets would develop the Spiral, a small spacecraft that would launch vertically and land on nearly any runway in the world.

The MiG-105-11, part of the Spiral aerospace system developed in the mid 1960s and halted in 1969. Spiral was the response to the American Dyna-Soar project.
The MiG-105-11, part of the Spiral aerospace system developed in the mid 1960s and halted in 1969. Spiral was the response to the American Dyna-Soar project.

Spiral was built in response to the American Dyna-Soar project, and as such looks very similar to its unflown, untested American counterpart. The Spiral vehicle would launch one or two cosmonauts vertically on a large booster, orbit the Earth, and return to any point on the globe after several orbits. Spiral, or at least the space plane test articles, was flown for flight tests. The project did not last, as once the American Dyna-Soar project ended, there was no need for the Soviets to continue.

With the development of the American Space Shuttle, the Soviets again began to look at space planes. The designs for the old Spiral could have been resurrected. This was not to be. The American Space Shuttle, and Dyna-Soar were completely different vehicles, with different mission. The US Air Force had thrown out Dyna-Soar and replaced it with the Space Shuttle; the Soviets would do the same. The Soviets would copy the American Space Shuttle.

The first two American shuttles were authorized in 1972, and the first prototype, Enterprise, would fly atmospheric tests in 1976. Although the American Space Shuttle would have unofficial military applications, NASA decided to keep all the development of the Space Shuttle unclassified. In the late 1970s, anyone could visit the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC with the name and number of a document related to the Space Shuttle program and get a copy. By the time of the first launch of Columbia in 1981, thousands of documents related to the development of the shuttle made the 1.5 mile trip from the Government Printing Office to the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC.

Stealing the American Space Shuttle was not just a case of going down to the Government Printing Office to get a few documents. It was one of the first, if not the first cases of Internet espionage.

The American Shuttle Program was an effort spread over dozens of research institutions including MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Penn State. The results of this research were collected into commercial databases. With thousands of documents online, the KGB recovered more than three thousand documents relating to the shuttle, with 300 related to wind tunnel tests, 100 on the solid rocket boosters, and a handful on the military applications of the Space Shuttle. This saved the Soviets billions – wind tunnel tests were not needed, computer simulations already existed, and test data was available.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise would have its first free atmospheric flight in 1977, and Columbia would make its first spaceflight in 1981. By this time the design and construction of the Soviet version – named Buran – was well on its way. For the first launches of Columbia, Soviet satellite dishes in Cuba downloaded telemetry from the shuttle’s ascent while long range Bear bombers orbited the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. A mere ten minutes after STS-1 landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, a Soviet spy satellite flew overhead, taking pictures of the approach, landing, and ground equipment. Two launches later, fifteen minutes before the landing of STS-3 at White Sands, New Mexico, another Soviet spy satellite gathered intel on landing preparations.

The American and Soviet Shuttles

Buran, attached to an Energia booster, ready for its first and only spaceflight.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise would have its first free atmospheric flight in 1977, and Columbia would make its first spaceflight in 1981. By this time, construction of the Soviet Buran shuttle was well on its way.

Given the incredible amount of data on the American shuttle orbiter, it should come as no surprise the Buran system would be so similar. The US shuttle had an 80° wing glove sweep, and a 45° degree sweep of the main wing. Buran had the same 45°  sweep of the main wing and a 78° sweep for the wing glove. The American shuttle had a wingspan of 23.79 m and a total length of 37.24 m. Buran‘s wingspan was 23.92 m and was 36.37 m long. The height difference of the vertical stabilizer between the two orbiters was mere inches.

While the orbiters were remarkably similar, the launch systems were not. The American Space Shuttle used three main engines mounted to the orbiter itself, a large external tank, and two solid rocket motors mounted to the side of the external tank. The Soviet shuttle’s launch system – ‘Energia’ – looked similar, but could not have been more different. Instead of two strap-on solid fuel boosters, this system used four boosters, fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen. Where the American system placed the main engines on the shuttle itself, the Soviet system placed the main engines on the large center stack, to be thrown away after every launch.

NASA’s space shuttle would go on to make 133 successful flight over thirty years. The Soviet shuttle Buran would make only one unmanned flight in 1988, although it did demonstrate automated landing capability no American shuttle ever had. Two sister ships of Buran were constructed, Ptichka and Baikal, with the first manned flight of the Soviet shuttle occurring sometime in 1994. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 put those plans on hold, and in 1993, the entire program was officially cancelled.

Although Buran would be destroyed in a hangar roof collapse in 2002, various boilerplates and uncompleted shuttles would become museum displays, and in one case a restaurant, the technology stolen to create these shuttles would live on. When the Space Shuttle Atlantis first docked to the Russian space station Mir in 1995, it carried with it a docking module originally built for a Soviet shuttle.

Now, with both shuttle fleets grounded and tucked away in museums, a look back on the development of both systems shows how much was the same – the spacecraft themselves – and how much was different. The Soviet shuttle was developed a little bit later than the American version, and as such had capabilities NASA’s fleet would never have. Buran completed an autonomous landing, with a go-around due to crosswinds. Neither could ever be done in an American shuttle. Challenger and Columbia would be lost due to solid rocket boosters and foam strikes on ascent. Neither would have happened with the Energia launch system.

While the design of the Soviet shuttle was taken directly from documents produced in the mid 1970s, it’s not quite right to say the Soviet version was stolen. Buran, and her incomplete sister ships were iterations on a design, arguably more capable, but mired in a political and economic reality of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.

113 thoughts on “Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle

  1. “In retrospect, the idea of a space bomber seems ludicrous. In 1974, both the US and the Soviet Union had a vast array of intercontinental ballistic missiles at their disposal that could launch in minutes and deliver dozens of warheads to targets on the other side of the world.”

    Where did you get the idea that the military’s interest in the Space Shuttle was as a “space bomber”?

    The biggest design changes I know about requested by the military were from the NRO, not as a “space bomber” but as a repair plane and data retrieval for spy satellites. Hence the huge payload bay. And also the oversized launch vehicles (and reduced reliability), because they wanted to reach polar orbit.

    To quote from that article: ““NRO requirements drove the shuttle design,” says Parker Temple, a historian who served on the policy staff of the secretary of the Air Force and later with the NRO’s office within the Central Intelligence Agency. ”

    Which made a lot of sense at the time – except that the design changes made the Shuttle so expensive to fly that it usually made more sense to just launch a new satellite than fix it. But the NRO *did* use the Shuttles to launch and repair payloads, so it’s not like those design changes were entirely unused.

    1. I could see spy sattelite repair and, at the design time requirement, unloading and reloading film canisters. Using it to drop bombs though makes no sense. They payload and maneuverability would have made it a sitting duck for high range anti ballistics.

      1. Well, I can see spy satellite repair too, because, well, they *did* do spy satellite repair with it (see the linked article).

        The Shuttle wasn’t that bad a design. NASA’s big problem with the Shuttle was that they had to promise the Air Force anything they wanted in order to get Congress to see the Shuttle as critical to national security, which is the only way that Congress would fund it. It wasn’t NASA’s problem. It was political.

    2. This. The military having a big piece of the funding let them dictate the size and payload requirements which pretty well screwed up the original design and goals. The bay had to hold large military sats. Original plans for a launch every 3 days and rapid turn-around got completely buggered by other compromises. In the end, what the press and NASA called “The DC-3 of Space” was more like the Ford Tri-Motor. And Richard Feynman’s correction of the NASA methodology for determining risk was a major punch in the gut for the program.

      It would have been very cool if the X-15 program had been expanded and continued but the space race put the man in spam can ahead in priorities.

      Some of you may recall that the original shuttle system had a flyable booster stage meant to land back at the takeoff site and held the main engines. Like if Elon Musk put wings and a pilot in his boosters.

    3. The Hilarious part was I remember when they were selling the shuttle and was trying to talk about how it’s a “space truck” to bring back a satellite that needs repair… I asked my father, “What’s the most expensive part of a satellite?” He replied with a dead pan response, “The launch costs 10 to 100X more than the hardware, their claim is a bag of cow pies.”

      Nobody sane believed the BS that they were going to go and grab something to bring it back for repairs. but it made for good marketing to the american public and uneducated senators.

      1. Maybe in the 50’s. The cost of the launch in most cases is nothing compared to cost of the payload. The average shuttle launch was $1B US. The cost of the launch itself (fuel and expendable parts) was less than $13M US. The average (simple) communication satellite is $300M US these days. A complicated (imaging) satellite can be over $1B US.

      2. “Nobody sane believed the BS that they were going to go and grab something to bring it back for repairs.”

        Bring it back? Who the heck said anything about bringing it back?

        They were talking about repairing them *in flight*. Once you’ve got a satellite in the orbit you want, why in the hell would you bring it *back down*?

        And if you really think that no one would want that, Hubble was serviced 5 times, and there were at least 5 other satellite servicing missions that are known, and a few military servicing missions that we don’t officially know. As others have pointed out, your notion that the launch costs more than the satellite is very, very wrong.

        1. You might want to retrieve a satellite for ground repair if you can’t determine what has failed, can cannot come up with a reliable plan for servicing it in space. Another reason to retrieve and return to Earth is to recover satellites that for whatever reason were not in their intended orbit.

          From Wikipedia’s list of space shuttle missions:
          STS-51A retrieved Palapa B2 and Westar VI, which were then serviced on Earth and relaunched. In both cases, the original launches had failed, leaving these geostationary satellites in low-Earth orbit, making it possible for STS to retrieve them. Both were serviced on Earth and relaunched. My guess is that it would be too difficult or time-consuming to bring a booster in the cargo bay, service the satellite, mate it with the booster, and launch it from the shuttle. STS-51A was funded by the companies that had insured the satellites, indicating that this was less expensive than building and launching replacement satellites.
          STS-32 retrived the Long Duration Exposure Facility in 1990, which had been launched by STS-41C in 1984. In this case, retrieval of the satellite was planned from the start, as its mission was to collect samples of materials exposed long-term to the orbital environment.
          STS-57 retrieved EURECA, another platform for experiments in orbit requiring retrieval.
          STS-72 retrieved Japan’s Space Flyer satellite, which was intended for retrieval, both for recovering samples and for reuse. There isn’t any indication that it has been relaunched.
          STS-80 retrieved ORFEUS II, launched by STS-51. This was another satellite designed to be retrieved.

          So while there are only two cases of retrieved and relaunched satellites, there is clearly a case to be made for having a :”space truck” capable of returning satellites safely to Earth.

  2. Thanks for a nice article. One of those burans was standing in the center of moscow at Gorki’s park for every boy’s amusement. It even had a cockpit with moving handles and all those rocker switches! So maybe it did not bring any viable progress to russian space program, it definately inspired lot of young people to tie their life with space tech. I’d like to propose a minor correction though. “Buran” is a strong siberian huricane, and is strictly of male gender in russian, so calling the ship as “she” looks dissonant.

    1. It’s an english language thing, english has no grammatical gender (thank God) but airplanes/spaceships are usually referred to as she, why I don’t know, maybe because they have “cockpits”. ;)

  3. “Buran completed an autonomous landing, with a go-around due to crosswinds. ”

    As a pilot, this usually involves applying power and repeating the landing — something you can’t do in a glider. As there an engine available for that, or was it a matter of a high-altitude decision-point and realignment as it glided in?

    1. NASA shuttle was 100% dead stick from de-orbit to landing as it carried no extra fuel beyond orbit maneuvering. Buran had engine and small supply of fuel onboard that allowed for some powered flight during descent.

      I did like the idea of having main engine on the big rocket rather than on shuttle’s butt because it becomes dead weight after the main fuel supply is exhausted. By having the engine on the rocket, it meant more cargo space on the shuttle. The drawback is it’d be more expensive as new engine assembly would have to be built for each missions.

      1. It wasn’t such a drawback, since NASA discovered they had to essentially re-build the engine after each flight anyways.

        It was such a complicated piece of engineering that it had to be pulled apart for every nut and bolt to check that nothing was broken, before it could be re-certified for launch. It would have been cheaper just to build a new one.

      2. ” it becomes dead weight after the main fuel supply is exhausted. By having the engine on the rocket, it meant more cargo space on the shuttle.”
        The only increase in payload would have been the difference between the amount of fuel used for the OMS burn. You would have carried the mass of the SMEs to just a small fraction of orbital velocity anyway.

        1. Having less mass on-board would extend the mission envelope and reach of the OMS considerably, especially for missions where you’re not lifting particuarily heavy loads, or are just reaching to fix some satellite.

          Of course if you’re packed to the gills, the difference isn’t much, but suppose you’re going up to the Hubble telescope. Instead of a ton of engines, you could take a ton of supplies along.

      1. The orbital Buran (OK-1K1) did not have atmospheric engines. What’s called a “go-around” was just an adjustment in flight path, ordered by its flight computers to dissipate higher-than-expected velocity. It was still a giant glider, though. The atmospheric test vehicle, OK-GLI, had some turbojets added so it could take off from the ground, then glide in for approach and landing tests (similar to what was done with the shuttle Enterprise, although it got to altitude by being hauled up by the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft).

  4. I always get a laugh when I see NATO and US claims to technology that was basically the product of Russian and German education and citizens; work for us or die in prison or just die.. Much like the claim that the “iron curtain” was sustained by warsaw country propaganda while NATO countries were basically meeting socialist and communist philosophers with smoking guns in their own homes and broadcasting nuclear-attack and anti-labor messages all throughout the day in the “land of the free”. If you’ve always lived inside the NATO bubble this probably makes no sense to you though..

    Now after killing millions to stop socialism and communism the US has a presidential candidate that literally runs on socialist principles and is actually competing. Not that making it mandatory to hire certain types of people and massive taxes aren’t communism(China is also communist but is better at math and economics) and those were put in place at the beginning of the cold war..

    1. China is communist in name only, in the same way that the USA is democracy in name only. Both coutries are run by corrupt “elites” in bed with big bussiness. That makes them plutocracies (rule of the rich).

      1. I would disagree. China is a Party and Military thugocracy with summary executions for officials who embarrass the party or driving bulldozers over property “owners” with news blackouts.

        The US is fluid. There are certainly elites and there are people who find tens or hundreds of millions in magic money just by hanging around Washington D.C., like the Clintons. There is young money, old money, people who become poor and people who become rich. At the moment, with the highest business taxes in the World, the fluidity is at a minimum. Has it reached a tipping point and is downhill from here? Many think so. Debt is greater than the entire output of the economy. Future debt is so big nobody knows how to calculate it. It keeps growing like the number of digits in Pi.

        1. Most people on the internet don’t know electorates in the college can optionally disregard state votes or hijack candidacy at the convention….>>>AND I’M NOT EVEN AN AMERICA<<

        2. I’m more worried because you think that the President is the leader of the country, rather than the people who you actually elect to make the laws.

          Because if you think about it, the concept of a leader of a democracy kinda misses the point.

        3. Of course it isn’t democratic, and never was. Everyone knew better than to risk the tyranny of democracy, in which 51% decide how much stuff to take from 49%. Who would want that? Thus, a representative republic. Each state chose how to select Senators, most by appointment by governors or selected by state houses. Today the Senate is elected by popular vote and the Senate and House are nearly identical bodies as far as who they represent, which is an unfortunate development that seriously weakens protections.

          And with semiconductor band gap dependent on temperature, you can make a temperature sensor that works really well with any transistor or diode.

          1. Yes. But the problem becomes bigger over time, because only rich are influencing the government effectively. Government is thereby alienated from the great majority of the people and … nothing good comes out of it in the end.

          2. The US Constitution put in place a republic. However a democratic process determines who represents the people, and elected representatives use the democratic process to do the business of the republic. As a practicle manner the USA acts as a democracy with a slight bottle neck between the bottom to the top that to date has tempered mob rule. Those who get on the America is a republic not a democracy high horse need to examine reality. Republics aren’t immune to mob rule, only the nature of the mob changes. The American revolution was started b landowners and merchants, that group wrote the US Constitution. Replace the word people in the Gettysburg Address with merchant you will get a more accurate description of government at all levels in the USA. Damn I need to scroll up to see what this article was about and
            who sidetracked me.

      1. “common control”=governed(like America).. “democratic control”=non-governed(like nobody)..communism and socialism..

        By the way I see “philosophers” and bigots on the net go back and forth with communism and socialism regarding russia all the time. I could make a full time job out of correcting them..>>>>>>>>>>>>>socialism has only ever existing among small indigenous people and it always leads to communism do to greed<<<<

        1. I think when people refer to communism it is only fair to use Marx and Engels, not some deconstructed “common control”. And ti takes a chapter to describe. I don;lt think you can do it in a on-liner.

          Socialism is too loose. Maybe a mashup of Progressives and Populists going back to Dewey, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and all intellectuals and celebrities who visited and praised Fascist Italy and Spain, NAZI Germany, the Soviet Union, etc. in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Especially John Dewey who successfully reformed U.S. education into a system for social change. He referred to himself as a Democratic Socialist and is the intellectual’s intellectual.

          Ah well. Water under the bridge. None of them would have liked public money spent on space except as a make-work program.

    2. ” broadcasting nuclear-attack and anti-labor messages”

      What the heck are you talking about? Your rant is quite incorrect and quite amusingly dumb.

      “The goal of socialism is communism.” Vladimir Lenin

      1. He’s talking about how the US was and is still living in a complete fairytale version of reality where international politics was all “duck and cover”, and anything that happens in the periphery (Europe) is either ignored or blown to ridiculous extremes for internal political reasons.

        Seeing it from the outside, today, watching Russian and US media, it’s like watching two schitsophrenics argue about whose hallucinations of flying decapitated heads are real.

        1. You’re wasting your breath/finger-endurance.. This is another xenophobe “philosopher” on the net who basically says non-conformity to capitalist-objective American standards is the driving force behind anything negative in human civilization..

          They’d rather poorer people die then have to stand in line with them anywhere and will outright deny marginalization do to social differences even though the evidence is staggering..

          I especially love these ones who blame it all on everyone else just not being as intelligent.. As the average example has a 6th grade(by US standards) understanding of mathematics and science..

  5. I love the illustration at the top of the article, what were these guys thinking? We Americans always held the shuttle out as an example of high-tech, it was such a dumb idea. Now, 40 years later, we are building the kind of system that we should of built back then. Too bad so many had to die so we could learn that strapping a shuttle next to a rocket and gluing tiles to the wings are stupid ideas. Fortunately we never learned the lesson that coming down without power is anther stupid idea.

    1. “I love the illustration at the top of the article, what were these guys thinking?”

      As far as I can tell, that’s just Hackaday’s idea of what the military was thinking. I certainly don’t think it’s what they were thinking, since it makes no sense, and doesn’t agree with what other historians think.

      What I think they were thinking is “crap, we told the Israelis in the we would have all this spy imagery from our fancy satellites, and it took so long to get the film back and developed the war was already over.” (The ‘war’ in question is the Six-Day War). So their idea was that they’d have the Shuttle, which could overfly anywhere on Earth, take images, and come back *the next day* with film developed.

      … Actually, even *that* probably wasn’t what they were thinking. What they were probably thinking was “dude, NASA’s budget sucks, and the military’s budget is huge. How do we convince Congress to give us some of that money to make our reusable space vehicle?” And the answer was by convincing them that it could launch huge satellites, repair them in flight, pluck Soviet satellites from orbit, and overfly anywhere on Earth and get immediate imagery back.

      So, yeah. Politics.

    2. The Shuttles were 1960’s airliner construction technology, hand built, wrapped in fragile heat protection tiles and made to fly at hypersonic speeds.

      Somwhere out there is a documentary that was broadcast only once, on Discovery or History Channel, shortly before the loss of Columbia in 2003. By chance I saw part of it, just a couple of segments. One showed some people failing to get the Space Shuttle Wheel Nut Torque Wrench to work properly. So they went and got the other SSWNTW (only two of them were made) and… they couldn’t get it to work right either. So they stuck a note in the procedure manual so the next shift could try to get the nuts torqued properly.

      The other segment showed how new heat shield tiles were made.
      Step 1. Read the stenciled number off the old, damaged tile. If it can’t be read, look up the numbers of the tiles next to it to determine which one it is.
      Step 2. Go to the card catalog (like book libraries used to have before they computerized) and pull the tile’s card.
      Step 3. On that card is the shelf location of the full size 3D tile template – go and retrieve it from the tile template room. It’s a very large room, lots of shelves.
      Step 4. Take a block of silica tile foam and use a bandsaw to rough cut it to the size of the template.
      Step 5. Mount the template and chunk of foam into a manually operated 3D copying pentagraph. This has a high speed diamond cutting burr and a matching size probe which is run all over the template.
      Step 6. Remove the shaped foam and inspect for flaws. If it passes…
      Step 7. Hand dip, just like very expensive candy, in white ceramic coating. Let dry.
      Step 8. Fire in a kiln then after it cools, inspect for flaws like cracks, too thick or too thin coating. If it’s a black tile, go back to Step 7 but dip in the black coating, then do Step 8 again.
      Step 9. After passing inspection, go to the other card catalog where the individual tile number stencils are stored, pull the correct one and use it to airbrush on the tile’s number.
      Step 10. Lovingly pack the tile and send it off to the service department where it will be installed on the Shuttle.

      In all the years of operating the Shuttle, they didn’t do things like digitizing all those physical templates so tiles could be CNC milled. Didn’t develop an automated ceramic coating dipping machine. Never even put the tile card catalog into a database to make finding the templates easier.

      Same with the service procedure manuals. They had these huge binders filled with thousands of pages, tabs and added notes everywhere.

      Putting all that into a computer system, with a method of adding notations which would be brought up first and foremost for each shift, would have reduced the turnaround time. Just think of the time wasted at the start of each shift, flipping through the binders to see if there were any urgent attention notes left by the previous shift.

      Those two segments of that documentary weren’t too flattering to the Shuttle program. I’d like to see the rest of it, but it seems to have been put down the memory hole. Rather embarrassing to NASA to show the lumps and bumps behind the scenes right when they’d just lost a second Shuttle and seven more people.

      1. Fascinating. It’s almost excusable that Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis were all hand-built, since these were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but come on, Endeavor was built in the early 90s! No possible excuse for not figuring out how to CNC trim and mark the tiles for those (and the replacement tiles for all of the shuttles) by then. Card catalogs!!! Not even libraries were using them any more in the 90s!

        1. No two tiles were the same, not even the same tile in the same location on two different Shuttles. Even on the flattest areas each had to have its side towards the Orbiter individually sculpted to closely fit the variations in the aluminum skin. Even with the layers of high temperature felt glued to the aluminum and the tiles glued to that it didn’t fully smooth out the surface.

          NASA got damn lucky with Atlantis on the STS 119 flight in 1988. That was a secret military mission and NASA kept the extent of the tile damage very hush-hush for a long time. Over 700 belly tiles were damaged and one near the nose was completely ripped away. Fortunately that tile was right where an extra reinforcing piece of aluminum was so it managed to not burn through. That flight had the arm with a monochrome camera and the crew could see the massive damage.

          But mission control couldn’t see as good as the astronauts. ALL communications back and forth were encrypted, no exceptions. The encryption used was slow so video resolution had to be reduced a lot to transmit in real time. The crew wanted to send just a bit unencrypted so control could see how bad it was but nope, security, seeecret stuuufff.

      2. ..and another thing: a complete file of stencils for the tiles? They couldn’t use one of those kits of numbers that slide together to make a stencil for any arbitrary number? I had one of those that cost about $20. Wow.

  6. It was sad when USA retired the shuttle program, It was iconic and I will always remember being inspired as a kid by it. However the each shuttle mission cost more than a rocket, and rockets were more reliable. The shuttle program was a waste of cash compared to the disposable rocket system. It seems crazy that missions nowadays rely on “old tech” rockets when we were all sure in the 90’s that shuttle’s were the future. I liked the idea of the shuttle more and I’m sure I am not alone but sometimes you have too take a step back to take a step forward.

    1. Woah, woah. You can’t just lump “rockets” into one big category. There’s a hell of a huge difference between the Shuttle launch system, capable of launching over 24 metric tons to LEO, and, for instance, the Soyuz rockets, which are more like 7 metric tons.

      The Shuttle launch system had between 1-2 failures in 135 flights (depends on how you classify the Columbia accident – I wouldn’t call it a launch failure, even though the original incident occurred at launch).

      The only other systems with around that launch payload capability with roughly that many flights is the Soviety/Russian Proton, which has a roughly a ~10% launch failure rate. Maybe you could include the Ariane-5 as well, but even that’s still 2 failures in ~50-60 some flights.

      The Shuttle wasn’t less reliable than a rocket of similar size. It was just bigger than it needed to be for most flights, and bigger rockets tend to be less reliable (go figure).

      1. The very fact that the failure rate is below 1% for the shuttle, and the fact that it could loft ridiculous payloads into orbit, AND, bring that kind of stuff back down from orbit safely is pretty amazing.

        As of now, we don’t really have the ability to bring anything back from orbit that doesn’t fit in some kind of cramped capsule.

        1. One of the things that drives me nuts is when people say “oh, look at the Soyuz getting astronauts to ISS. It’s way cheaper, and more reliable. Why didn’t we do that from the start?” (Or similar comparisons with the Dragon capsule, etc.)

          But we can do that because the ISS is already there. We don’t need the spacecraft to provide life support for long durations, space for experiments, etc. And the ISS exists because of the Shuttle.

          That’s partly why retiring the Shuttle fleet wasn’t *so* bad, because, well, in some sense, you could say they did their job- the ISS exists. Way late and way too expensive, sure, but again: politics.

      2. The problem was that you had to launch the Shuttle itself (lots of weight). Check out the SLS, it will lift 70 metric tons with the initial configuration and 130 metric tons with the “evolved configuration.” No reason for astronauts to go up with the load, if they are needed they can go up in a smaller, safer rocket.

        1. “No reason for astronauts to go up with the load,”

          Well… yes and no.

          The advantage of the Shuttle was that it allowed crews to do repair work, assembly, etc. without actually being *in* space, and it actually had facilities, a robot arm, etc. to help with those repairs. It’s a combination of a launch system and a space facility. You just don’t *get* that with a smaller vehicle. But at this point, we’ve gotten enough experience with satellites in space that I’m not really sure we need something like that, so… dunno.

          But I think you’re being a little dismissive of the advantages that the Shuttle provided. The Hubble repair, and a few ‘secret’ military repairs, and other satellite servicings definitely showed that there’s some merit to the Shuttle idea, it’s just probably not enough to justify the cost.

          1. It was a shame they did not have access to the robot arm during the Columbia incident, as the ground crew knew they were done for and didn’t tell the crew because there was nothing they could do to fix the damage.

      3. Keep in mind that Proton and Ariane are not rated for human flight, so it’s kind of expected of them to be less reliable, because they’re (a LOT) cheaper. Soyuz is what you should be comparing it to, even when it’s a lot smaller. There seem to be only 2 fatal manned Soyuz flights.
        Not having the Shuttle strapped to the rocket would give more payload capability AND less single-point failures that will result in catastrophic loss.
        This is why the Energia and Buran were designed as they were, they wanted a heavy-lift system that didn’t have to lug a shuttle that is big and heavy if there’s no need to return something in one piece from orbit.

        1. “Soyuz is what you should be comparing it to, even when it’s a lot smaller. There seem to be only 2 fatal manned Soyuz flights.”

          Yeah. Because there haven’t been as many manned as unmanned Soyuz flights, and all of the Shuttle flights were manned.

          So what’s the failure rate on Soyuz launches, total? Around 3%. Oh look! That’s higher than the Shuttle. And the shuttle is a heavy lift booster, so it should have worse reliability, in general, since there’s less margin for error.

          I really can’t stand this notion that the Soyuz is just super-reliable and the Shuttle was a deathtrap. It’s crazy. Soyuz rockets fail all the time. They’ve just been lucky so far, including one failure where the automated launch escape system just barely managed to get the crew away in time.

          1. What is the basis for your assertion that a larger booster should have lower reliability, or even that it would have a smaller margin for error?

          2. Arguably, the requirement that all Shuttle flights be manned was in itself a design flaw with the Shuttle. NASA was politically opposed to the idea of unmanned Shuttle flights so it was intentionally designed to require a pilot. The Soviets preferred to design their rockets to be capable of unmanned flight and avoid manned flights until after they worked the bugs out.

      4. I didn’t mean to lump rockets like that I just meant sometimes you get it right the first time around, I know the shuttle had many benefits too. The real problem with the shuttle was parts and cost I just added failure in there because it was higher than rockets. I really wish there was a need for a new type of shuttle because it was so cool. Maybe one day they will look at something like that again.

        1. It *wasn’t* higher than rockets!

          It was just more dramatic than rockets, and we flew more missions with the Shuttle than with any other system. Russia has lost cosmonauts as well. Space is dangerous. Stuff blows up. People die. But there’s no reason to insult the people who worked on the Shuttle by claiming that it wasn’t safe.

          1. I didn’t insult anyone, The shuttle program was a success in my eyes, Take your “emotions” out of the situation, I’m stating that one is safer than the other which is at the moment a statistical fact. Would I be insulting motorbike manufactuers if I said cars were safer? Space is dangerous, the shuttle program was scrapped because it needed parts that were no longer made. They used parts from all over the U.S to help get senators on board.

          2. “I’m stating that one is safer than the other which is at the moment a statistical fact.”

            “Safer” is not a statistic. It’s a word. And claiming that a launch system like Soyuz is safer than the Shuttle *is* insulting, because you’re comparing apples and oranges. There’s literally nothing to compare the Shuttle system *to*, so saying it’s safe or unsafe is just silly.

            The Shuttle is a crewed, heavy launch system, and it flew basically 10 times more than any other crewed heavy launch system. Comparing it to Soyuz because they both go to space is like saying “commercial flights are safer than fighter pilot sorties.”

          3. Safety is king of a slippery word, but you CAN compare risks for various launch systems. If you have the choice of launching a satellite using an unmanned booster or a manned “space truck”, each involves different risks, but the objective is the same, so you’d BETTER be able to compare them.

  7. I see no mention of the fact that Energia was a separate system, that could be (and actually was) used for heavy lifting…Also I see no mention that the boosters were planned to be reusable, the vision was that they would land on a normal runway like a glider…

  8. I think if NASA had gotten the funding they sought for the shuttle without having to ask the military for a handout we would still be flying the original shuttle designs, and the safety record would be perfect.

    Alas, unless you cry “national security” in the hallowed halls of Congress, nothing gets funded properly.

    1. I read, and this is from memory so forgive me, that Challenger was basically the fault of American politics.

      In this case of the second principle, gravy, the other way of getting funding. For the Shuttle to get support, they had to spread some of it’s budget around different states, to convince their senators. So the SRBs were made by Morton Thiokol in Utah, miles and miles away from the launch sites. The SRBs were huge, shipped by barge, so they had to disassemble into smaller parts to be able to send them all that distance.

      This meant the O-rings between sections, one of which is what failed during Challenger’s launch, sending hot flames onto the fuel tank.

      If they’d have made them somewhere closer, that need not have happened.

  9. “it’s not quite right to say the Soviet version was stolen. Buran, and her incomplete sister ships were iterations on a design, arguably more capable, but mired ” Then why name your article like that? Click bait? Also, was it ever actually proven that Soviets stole the plans?

    1. Not sure what “proven” means here, but it looks like a lot of the information from this article was sourced from here (including the ‘space bomber’ reference – who knows, maybe the Russians actually thought that was the idea), which has plenty of quotes from people involved at the time to basically confirm it.

    2. IIRC some NASA people claimed that the (minor) differences in the design meant that the Buran was an original design, something about minor changes impacting the whole design? Inspired by: sure, the Soviets probably wanted something similar in capabilities.

      There’s a reason e.g. airplane designs of a certain age looks similar across countries and design teams: technology rarely makes leaps. If one country (or manufacturer) makes something unusual (like forward swept wings) others will think that the well known problems of that feature have been solved and then try to make it work themselves.

  10. The drawing on top of this article is beautifully done, it reminds me of an action cartoon. The colors, the action, the drama and suspence… to me it’s pure art. I would like to know who(m) is(are) behind these images and is there a place on the hackaday site were these are archived or can be viewed.
    Thank you for making these images and please keep on doing so.

  11. Well, now, in hindsight, do you guys think that some sort of “Space Shuttle 2” based on Soviet conceptual modifications and on contemporary space technology would be justified for next round of construction works in orbit (repair, replacement or upgrade of ISS)? What have we lost in capabilities that served humanity well when Space Shuttle program ended? Perhaps Hubble and other space telescopes maintenance?

    1. Given how stupidly expensive each STS mission was, it’s way cheaper to build the friggin’ satellite properly and make sure the mirror is to specifications BEFORE you launch it, once it becomes obsolete/fails, build a new one and launch it…

      1. “Given how stupidly expensive each STS mission was, it’s way cheaper to build the friggin’ satellite properly and make sure the mirror is to specifications”

        Oh, c’mon. Hubble cost $2.5B to build it, plus another $1B to launch (since only the Shuttle could launch it). Another $1B to fix it versus another $3.5B to replace it is an easy choice.

        Moreover, Hubble was *designed* to be serviced, otherwise it wouldn’t’ve been able to last as long as it did. They didn’t service the Hubble *because* the mirror was out of spec. They fixed the mirror because they serviced Hubble – they had to replace a whole bunch of stuff anyway.

        Hubble exists, and has done amazing science, *because* of the Shuttle. There’s a huge advantage to having a servicable observing *platform* rather than a simple fixed satellite. That’s half the reason why STS-125 flew, because people made convincing arguments for Hubble continuing even with JWST coming online later.

  12. “although it did demonstrate automated landing capability no American shuttle ever had.”

    IIRC, Feynman in one of his books (again, I want to say “What Do You Care What Other People Think”) had said the Shuttle did have automatic landing capability, and was capable of landing better than the pilots could. It just was never used.

    Gagarin did little more than sit there while the capsule flew itself. In the US, the astronaut corps had more of a say in it. Summed up great in this scene from The Right Stuff:

    While Soviet (and later Russian) flights added pilot controls and more authority to Cosmonauts, the design philosophy was markedly different. The astronaut always had final control in US missions, fortunately for Neil Armstrong in Gemini 8!

    1. The Shuttles flew themselves the most of the time. The commander and pilot only took over for the very last stages of approach and landing, because pilots gonna pilot. All that was needed to enable fully automatic landings, planned as a contingency after the Columbia disaster, was to manually wire an unused output on the flight computers to the switch that dropped the landing gear. The Astronaut Office originally insisted that this be a non-automatic function.

      1. Airliner jet also fly themselves most of the time, but they still can’t do a fully automated landing despite having all the necessary hardware available…
        If I remember correctly, in order for the Shuttle to be in fully autonomous mode, they had to plug a massive cable right across the console

          1. They can do the whole thing, takeoff, flight, landing, by themselves. I still feel happier knowing there’s some humans at the wheel though. It’s a psychological thing, we’re happier having someone nearby in charge, rather than trusting the engineers on the ground, in case something goes wrong. Even if the crew themselves going wrong is more likely to kill you.

  13. Buran was a beauty. It’s a pity that the US and NASA weren’t able to work with Russia post collapse to get their hands on some of the technology and ideas implemented in Buran that might’ve allowed at least Columbia to attempt an autonomous descent (as NASA was very well aware of the potential danger Columbia was in), potentially evacuating her crew to the ISS as a lifeboat, part of the crew descending in a Soyuz, saving the lives of her crew. If Columbia landed successfully, it could be repaired and reused, and the lessons still learned from her loss would apply no less, and if not, then the space program would not have suffered the same kind of setbacks it did from her loss.

    1. STS-107 was in a different orbit than the ISS and had not nearly enough delta V to reach it so evacuating the crew to the ISS was absolutely impossible.

      The shuttles nearly had automated/remote landing capability. The only things missing where remote control of the landing gear, drag chute and a few other actions needed for landing. NASA added these features later with the RCO IFM which enabled shuttles to land completely unmanned (although IIRC not fully automatic as the final descend would be remote controlled by ground control).

      But I don’t get how unmanned landing capability would have helped the crew of STS-107. Are you implying that NASA willingly risked the lives of the crew just to possibly safe the shuttle?

      NASA wasn’t fully aware of the extend to which Columbia was damaged and even if they would have been aware a rescue of the crew (ether by an emergency EVA to repair the damage or by repurposing STS-114 into a rescue mission) would have been an extremely high risk mission with an unknown outcome.

      1. After the Columbia disaster there was a Congressional/NASA investigation to determine what could be done if the danger had been known while in orbit. That investigation lead toward the time needed to ready another Shuttle to rescue, it included the remaining air, power, food, CO2 scrubbers, and water on the Shuttle to keep the crew alive until the rescue launched. It was a very long process, preparing each Shuttle mission takes months of training for the crews (those on board and the support crews on Earth). An existing shuttle, if one was on the Launchpad, would need to be moved back to the VAB and disassembled to remove equipment and load rescue equipment. A new crew would have to be trained for the aspects of the rescue mission. I think they calculated 28 days to launch, and even then, it would be risky (the possibility of something overlooked was high). Meanwhile the crew on the stranded shuttle would need to be inactive, (no talking or moving) to stretch out their meager resources.

    2. There was too much orbital velocity difference to go from the Colombia orbit and the ISS orbit; the change required more energy than was available in the shuttle. Other than that there was no magic in the Buran. The Shuttle computers and controls were sufficient to do the landing

  14. One of the Buran Prototypes (OK-GLI) is now in a Museum here in Germany since 2008. Unfortunately I never found the time to actually go there, even though it’s just a one hour car drive away.

  15. Wouldn’t it be better to compare the X23/Prime/X24 program to the Spiral/Mig 105 ?

    The ‘Flying potato’ had orbital tests and the maned landing tests.
    (The X-24 is the one NOT shown in the beginning of the “Six Million Dollar Man”, which
    showed the drop of the HL-10 and the Crash of the M2-F2)

    1. There’s a nifty reason why the pilot of the M2-F2 didn’t die. The vehicle design had a badly located center of gravity. To correct it, someone in the group working on it came up with the idea of borrowing a lot of gold from Ft. Knox (he really did have the connections to get it), loading it into the nose of the craft, doing the flight tests then putting the gold back.

      Then one of them came up with the easier idea of just adding steel to the front of the internal framework until the balance was right. That saved the pilot’s life. After the crash they calculated that the frame was built so strong it could withstand a 1,000 G or higher impact. The massively overbuilt frame is what enabled the M2-F2 to be rebuilt as the M2-F3 after the crash on its 16th glide test.

  16. Interesting side note, the Buran program was not in favour of the Russian engineers at the time of its launch. The good portion of engineers involved in the Molnia project and the Spiral projects intended to use AN-225 as a carrier for multiple shuttles. The Buran story is tragic, because some good engineering went into the program and had a lot of potential yet ended buried under the rubble. One lead engineer for whom I have mad respect is Lozino Lozinskiy who wanted to make the spiral project into something similar to what Virgin Galactic is going after now… can you imagine if the Soviets built commercial space planes in the 80s? One fun story of the stratosphere tests that they conducted with the Spiral prototype was the launch of the aerodynamic shell covered in newspapers into space with the descent trajectory into the steppes of Kazakhstan. When the shell landed the newspapers on the bottom side of the shell were all burnt out, and the newspapers on the top were all intact.

  17. A nice, simple, politically correct version of events. The truth was far from the “officially blessed” story.

    The X-20 was killed by NASA, not the AF (forced to transfer the program to NASA – who killed it because it competed with their Gemini program)

    Viet Cong … not Kong, as in the biplane-killing Harryhausen ape creature.

    NASA had to increase the structural weight of the shuttle to fix aeroelasticity problems – negating the cross-track range the AF required for the once-around mission — which rendered their Vandy shuttle facility moot. Because of that aw-sh**, the AF was allowed to keep its booster production lines open rather than use the shuttle (which congress had MANDATED previously). But, the PC version of this article reads very nicely …. well done!

    1. You should not equate the lack of information on the author’s part with some hidden agenda. He just did not know about this, just like me (except for the King Kong part).

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