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.

Military rescues ’90s NASA mini-shuttle

23 04 2010

X-37B in the Atlas V payload fairing prior to liftoff. Credit: USAF

The U.S. Air Force’s evening launch of a new unmanned reusable spacecraft yesterday has been getting a lot of ominous press coverage.  However, far from hearing military drums or worrying about the weaponization of space, a full-fledged fanfare is going off in my mind with even a tugged heartstring or two.  Why?

Context.  This vehicle didn’t come out of nowhere.

Ghosts of NASA’s Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) as well as the Venturestar and other cancelled projects from the 1990s were lofted to orbit today by the Air Force (-or, as an Air National Guard friend of mine once told me, the soon-to-be “Air and Space Force”-) in the form of the highly secretive X-37B.

The craft, which is entirely automated, launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base just before 8:00pm last evening atop a Boeing Atlas-V rocket.  To someone like me, and I suspect an entire generation of space enthusiasts who grew up on the promise of the CRV and Lockheed-Martin’s Venturestar shuttle replacement in the ’90s, seeing one of these guys actually fly satisfies a promise now nearly 20 years old.

I graduated high school and entered college on the heels of the research flights of the X-33, X-34, X-37, and X-38, which weren’t military at all.  They were all NASA, and they were supposed to have led to a revolution in space travel.  Fully-reusable spacecraft.  New crew transports and escape vehicles.  Technology that would bring launch costs down an order of magnitude.  -Sleek-looking ships that had a rightful place at the vanguard of the 21st Century.

X-38 Crew Return Vehicle drop test, July 1999. Credit: Carla Thomas

Prototypes were built and tested.  Photos were coming out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center that could make even the most hardened space cynic crack a smile.  It looked like the future we’d been envisioning since the 1960s was finally arriving.  The air around the future of spaceflight was electric… But they never flew.  One after one, projects were either cancelled mid-stride or followup missions were never funded.

Politics and budget cuts got in the way.

Rendering of X-33/Venturestar, a fully reusable shuttle replacement, 1996. Credit: NASA

Then came President H.W. Bush’s Constellation Program, which returned to a more conventional, Apollo-style spaceflight architecture:  A capsule atop a rocket booster that would splash down via parachute upon return.

It was, frankly, a disappointment, but we all did our best to be good sports, and we got behind it.  But we never stopped looking over our shoulders, (hence why I still have these old Dryden pictures handy.)

So, am I alarmed by the recent launch of the X-38B?  Not at all.  The Air Force has been launching things into space since the beginning – satellites, astronauts, you name it – and the fact that they’ve picked up a ball NASA was forced to drop is one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen happen in quite some time.  Should the X-38 prove successful, it’s an exceedingly short distance to hand off hardware, lessons-learned, and the infrastructure to build the technology to NASA.  -Then, NASA hasn’t had to pay out to develop it at all.

Way to go, Air Force.  My hat’s off to you for keeping the dream alive.

Rendering of the original X-37 in flight, 1999. Credit: NASA

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