Life is filled with surprises big and small. Between 1994 and its cancellation in 2004, I was involved as a member of the American science team in the joint US/Russian RAMOS (Russian American Observation Satellites) program. The goal of the RAMOS program was to launch a pair of satellites into a 500-km orbit to obtain stereo observations of clouds and other atmospheric phenomena with 100-meter footprints using a suite of instruments covering wavelengths from the ultraviolet out to the long-wave infrared. During the last week of May 1999, I was making my second trip to Russia to meet with our international partners – my second trip to Russia in two years but, as the RAMOS program was ramping up along with my responsibilities, the first of what would turn into almost five years of regular trips to Russia every three or four months.
Being only the second of my eventual umpteen trips to Moscow, the novelty had yet to wear off and there were plenty of new things to see and experience. And as with almost every trip to Moscow, there was the inevitable field trip to some Russian contractor’s facility to get “The Grand Tour”. By 1999 we had been conducting a series of aircraft flights for about four years to obtain data to support the development of instruments for RAMOS as well as refine our science objectives. On this field trip, we were taken to a facility far outside of Moscow to discuss use of some Russian aircraft in a proposal to continue aircraft-based data collection campaigns beyond 1999. It was during this trip outside of Moscow that I got one of the biggest surprises of my professional life.
On this day we had been taken to the Zhukovsky Air Base about 40 km southeast of Moscow. In addition to being the home of the Gromov Flight Research Institute and one of the longest runways in all of Europe (with a length of 5,403 meters or 17,726 feet!), the air base has hosted the biannual MAKS Air Show (Mezhdunarodnyj Aviatsionno-Kosmicheskij Salon or International Aviation and Space Show) since 1993. Parked on the huge tarmac of the air base was a wide assortment of Russian aircraft which we saw only in passing as our bus was escorted along its way. But then, in a covered storage area, was the surprise – the Buran BTS-002 aerodynamic analog test vehicle also known as the OK-GLI. And the biggest surprise of all, for the first time on the tour the bus stopped and we were allowed to get out and check out this historic aircraft close up!
The Buran was the Soviet equivalent of the American Space Shuttle. The Buran BTS-002 was built in 1984 by NPO Molniya located in Moscow. Its mission was to perform approach and landing tests of Buran much as the Enterprise did during 1977 as part of the American Space Shuttle program. But unlike the Enterprise which was carried aloft by a modified Boeing 747 carrier (which would also be used during the Shuttle program to ferry orbiters across the country), the Soviet Union did not have an aircraft large enough at this time to carry a completed Buran shuttle aloft. It was not until the introduction of the Antonov An-225 in 1988 (which, by most measures, is the largest aircraft in the world) that the Soviets finally had an aircraft large enough. In the interim, they did modify the Myasishchev M-4 strategic bomber (better known in the West as the Bison bomber) to carry oversize cargo on its back called the VM-T Atlant. It had sufficient lift capability to carry an unfinished Buran fuselage or individual, empty propellant tanks of the gigantic Energia launch vehicle that was to send Buran into orbit. As luck would have it, I could see a VM-T Atlant parked on the far side of the airfield from Buran with a huge Energia propellant tank still on its back. But I was only able to get a distant view of it.
Unable to wait for the availability of a suitable carrier aircraft, the Buran BTS-002 was fitted with four Lyulka AL-31 afterburning turbojets rated at about 110 kN of thrust each which had been originally developed to power the Sukhoi Su-27 fighter. Unlike the American Space Shuttle or operational Burans, this test craft would use its own jet engines to take off from a runway and loop around to the proper approach path. With the engines set to idle, the Buran test pilots would then perform their gliding approach and landing test under conditions almost identical to an actual Buran returning from orbit. Aside from the jet engines and their fuel stored in a tank in the cargo bay, the Buran BTS-002 was structurally equivalent to the versions of Buran that were built to fly into space. All of the systems required by a spacecraft but not for these atmospheric tests, however, were replaced with dummy systems or ballast. The BTS-002 had a length of 36 meters, a wingspan of 24 meters and a takeoff mass of 92,000 kg. Its normal peak altitude and speed were 4,000 meters and 600 km/h, respectively, and it had a 30-minute endurance.
Buran BTS-002 made its first of 24 test flights on November 10, 1985. The last test flight was flown on April 15, 1988 – seven months to the day before the only spaceflight of the Buran flown unmanned from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. After completing its test program, the Buran BTS-002 was placed into storage at the Zhukovsky Air Base where it was brought out for static display during some of the MAKS air shows.
Less than a year after I saw the Buran BTS-002, it was sold to the Australian Buran Space Corporation (BSC) who shipped it to Australia for display during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Unfortunately, BSC declared bankruptcy after the Olympics and Buran went into outdoor storage. A Singapore investment group then bought Buran with a plan to exhibit it worldwide. Eventually it ended up in the hands of creditors in Bahrain where it was found by a group of German journalists. After years of litigation in court, Buran BTS-002 was eventually sold and shipped to Germany where it was restored and placed on display at Technikmuseum Speyer where it sits to this day.
As for me and my trips to Russia, I am afraid that this encounter with the Buran BTS-002 was the highlight of all my trips to that country at least in terms of space hardware. While I went on many more trips to various contractors’ facilities in and around Moscow and Saint Petersburg to see some fascinating things (not to mention all the usual tourist sights and museums in my free time), for me none of them could compare to that day I saw Buran.
Follow Drew Ex Machina on Facebook.
Here is a video containing Soviet era footage of the Buran BTS-002 in action.
Yefim Gordon and Bill Gunston, Soviet X-Planes, Midland, 2000
Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis, Energia-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle, Springer-Praxis, 2007
Anatoly Zak, “OK GLI”, Russian Space Web, November 16, 2013 [Link]