Views of a last space shuttle launch

26 06 2011

USSR's first and last Space Shuttle (Buran) launch, 11/15/1988. (Credit: RSK)

As NASA nears the final launch and retirement of its mainstay Space Shuttle, I think it only fitting to review another final Space Shuttle launch – one made twenty-three years ago.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. launched its own Space Shuttle, the Buran, for what would be the first and last time.  Replay camera videos of the automated launch and landing (yes, automated – in 1988!) can be found here and here, respectively.

Watching this footage now leads me to strange musings on the Russian space program that might have been and provides an eerie foreshadowing of what it will feel like to watch Atlantis’s final launch in only a couple of weeks.  Will NASA’s shuttle fleet suffer the same fate?  Will what was once an arguably successful and certainly iconic space transportation system soon be reduced to an array of archival YouTube videos?

The Buran, which means "snowstorm" in Russian, staged at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to launch. (Credit: RSK)

Buran, which is an obvious response to NASA’s Space Shuttle, arose due to the perceived military potential of the shuttle’s cargo bay.  In a piercingly accurate assessment recounted by Russian rocket engineer and historian Boris Chertok, U.S.S.R. defense analysts projected that NASA’s new spaceplane could be profitable only if it flew more than twice a month.  Because this was not the case, the U.S.S.R. concluded that NASA’s shuttle was, in fact, military-subsidized.  A response was necessary, and Buran was the result.

The first flight of the Buran was an astonishing success.  A specially-designed rocket, the largest liquid-fuel rocket ever constructed, lofted Buran to an insertion orbit.  Buran separated from the rocket without incident and fired its own rockets to boost its orbiting altitude.  It remained on orbit to circle the Earth twice before automatically firing its rockets for descent and an unpiloted glide landing.

The automated landing system nailed the touchdown to within 30 feet.  (The idea that this shuttle landed itself when I still thought a Nintendo represented state-of-the-art computing power is absolutely mind-boggling!)

The eerily familiar sight of Buran lifting off from the Cosmodrome's Launch Complex 37, site 110 left. (Credit: RSK)

However, economic difficulties and political instabilities saw that the triumphant 1988 inaugural launch would be Buran’s last.  The U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991, leaving the expensive Buran space program unfunded and in disarray.  The Buran visited airshows periodically and remained in storage until it was destoyed in 2002 when the Kazakhstan hangar containing it collapsed due to neglect.

-A tragically undignified ending to a remarkable craft.

Now, history is ripe with ironic twists.  As it would turn out, NASA’s Space Shuttle was not military in nature, (though certainly defense-sponsored research and even a satellite deployment or two was performed from time to time,) and so the military push to produce Buran was off the mark in the first place.  However, the automated spaceplane landing Buran successfully achieved would not be replicated until just last year, when an automated military spaceplane was launched by the U.S. Air Force (see: X-37).

It looks like the Russians were a couple of decades ahead of the defense curve on that one.

Today, just as NASA’s shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, there are talks of the Russians resurrecting the Buran.  Time will tell whether or not funding and political support materializes from Russia, but perhaps America’s new, small, automated military spaceplane will once again provide the impetus for Buran to rise from the ashes.  (Frankly, I’ll take military paranoia when it spurs the advancement of space exploration hardware.)

Buran completing an unpiloted landing after its first successful orbital flight. (Credit: RSK)

So, as the sun sets on NASA’s workhorse fleet, I am given to wonder where all last-lofted spaceplanes will sit in the annals of spaceflight history.

Was the idea of the reusable orbital cargo spaceplane a needlessly complicated hiccup in the evolution of space transportation systems, or was it a visionary leap in spacecraft design?

-Something to ponder while watching launches and landings on YouTube.

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Space Suit of the Week

31 05 2011

A quick note today on a very excellent blog series called Space Suit of the Week.  Its weekly contributions feature, unsurprisingly, space suits as they appear in art, culture and history.

While entries vary in style from edgy or morbid to fascinating and  fun, the posts carry readers on a romp through some of the most identifiable imagery in our collective psyche.  It’s quite awesome.

The series is actually a sub-part of the The Fox is Black blog, which is billed as an “art and design website that seeks to discover and share the most interesting, beautiful and inspiring parts of contemporary life.”  I’d say that space exploration definitely fits the bill. 

Check it out if you get a chance.





Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.





Yuri’s Semi-Centennial… and other milestones

12 04 2011

Monument of Yuri Gagarin on Cosmonauts Alley in Moscow. (Credit: Anatoly Terentiev)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of human exploration off-world.  Coincidentally, it also marks the 30th anniversary of the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Now is a time of transition in many respects; it’s a time of remembrance and of guarded (and sometimes not-so-guarded) excitement.  The Space Shuttle is retiring, the International Space Station is complete, the first commercial orbital transportation ventures have successfully flown and recovered spacecraft, and an armada of suborbital spacecraft are on deck to begin getting us off the rock.

So, with many celebrations occurring worldwide, I raise my glass in kind:

Here’s to those that have shown us the way and to what is yet to come.

May the wind be at our backs.





China’s space lab rising

5 11 2010

Chinese National Space Administration. (Credit: CNSA)

As arguably the third most powerful space agency in the world, the China National Space Administration, which already has successful manned launches and a confirmed spacewalk under its belt, continues its determined drive starward.  In early October, the CNSA signed a cooperative space plan with Russia for the 2010-2012 timeframe, the contents of which are being held close to the vest but no doubt include the joint Russian-Chinese exploration and sample-return mission (Fobos-Grunt) to the Martian moon Phobos next year.

Now, as reported last week, China recently announced (confirmed) plans for a series of orbital space stations, beginning with the launch of an unmanned test module within the next five years and a fully-crewed, Mir-style station by the year 2020.

This places proposed CNSA activities right in the thick of NewSpace (e.g., U.S., U.K., Russian,) commercial space station and launch vehicle flight tests.  Now, it’s no secret that advanced space technology has dual military applications, and China’s military made everyone nervous with their anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.  So, what are their intentions?  I’d like to believe the olive branches on CNSA’s logo are sincere.

-And, I should mention, if U.S.-Soviet space relations during the height of the Cold War are any precedent (Apollo-Soyuz), China’s space laboratory ambitions are sincerely peaceful.  Some of the most meaningful international olive branches have been traded in space.  Take the International Space Station, for example, which is the largest international cooperative effort in human history.  So, in that light, Godspeed CNSA.  The more permanent presences we have in orbit, the better it is for our space infrastructure in general.

And perhaps, working shoulder-to-shoulder off-world, the most effective Far-East/West bridges yet may be built in orbit.

Plaque commemmorating international coorperation assembled in orbit by astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975 as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (Credit: NASA)








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