Most people are familiar with the U.S. version of the space shuttle, the reusable spacecraft with the iconic white-and-black paint job. But did you know that the Soviet Union had a space shuttle, too?
When the Soviets caught wind of the American's shuttle program in the 1970s, they worried that the new vehicle was intended to bring the arms race to space. In true Cold War fashion, they began stealing American research for the craft, which, surprisingly, wasn't classified. By the 1980s, however, the Reagan administration made it harder to obtain, so the Soviets then turned to hacking early government, university and commercial computer databases. It was one of the first examples of online espionage [source: Windrem].
The Soviets' secret spy program led to the development of their own shuttle, Buran. Despite a nearly identical appearance to the U.S. space shuttle, Buranhad some key differences that some experts believe made it better. Although none of its engines were reusable (unlike the American craft, which had three engines built into its tail), Buran had a superior rocket system capable of carrying an astonishing 95 tons (86 metric tons) of cargo compared to the space shuttle's 29-ton (26-metric-ton) capacity. It was even capable of flying completely by remote control [source: Zak, "Better Space Shuttle"].
So if Buran was so great, what happened to it? Well, the shuttle didn't make its first flight until 1988, a time of great political turmoil in the Soviet Union, which ultimately collapsed in 1991. Russian President Boris Yeltsin canceled the program in 1993 before it ever took a second flight [source: Handwerk].
Author's Note: 5 Soviet Space Secrets
Researching the Soviet space program reveals a climate of intense secrecy that often served to cover up some pretty miserable failures. But it also reveals just how many successes the Soviets had. They were responsible for first satellite, the first living creature in space, the first lunar probe on the moon, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first space station and the first remote-controlled rover. In fact, if they hadn't been such a formidable opponent, the United States might never have been pushed to land a man on the moon. We can only hope that one day a friendlier competition will push humans to Mars and beyond.
More Great Links
- Adams, Cecil. "Are There Really "Lost Cosmonauts" Stranded in Space?" The Straight Dope. Jan. 17, 2003. (Jan. 19, 2017) http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2433/are-there-really-lost-cosmonauts-stranded-in-space
- Atherton, Kelsey D. "Soviet Space Station Fired a Gun in Orbit." Popular Science. Nov. 17, 2015. (Jan. 20, 2017) http://www.popsci.com/this-soviet-space-station-fired-gun-in-orbit
- Garber, Steve. "Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age." National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Oct. 10, 2007. (Jan. 18, 2017) https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/
- Handwerk, Brian. "The Forgotten Soviet Space Shuttle Could Fly Itself." National Geographic. April 12, 2016. (Jan. 20, 2017) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160412-soviet-union-space-shuttle-buran-cosmonaut-day-gagarin/
- Hardigree, Matt. "Inside the Soviets' Secret Failed Moon Program." Wired. Oct. 15, 2010. (Jan. 17, 2017) https://www.wired.com/2010/10/russian-moon-mission/
- Whitehouse, David. "First Dog in Space Died Within Hours." BBC News. Oct. 28, 2002. (Jan. 17, 2017) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2367681.stm
- Wilford, John Noble. "Russians Finally Admit They Lost Race to Moon." The New York Times. Dec. 18, 1989. (Jan. 19, 2017) http://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/18/us/russians-finally-admit-they-lost-race-to-moon.html?pagewanted=all
- Windrem, Robert. "How the Soviets Stole a Space Shuttle." NBC News. Nov. 4, 1997. (Jan. 20, 2017) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18686090/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/how-soviets-stole-space-shuttle/
- Zak, Anatoly. "Did the Soviets Actually Build a Better Space Shuttle?" Popular Mechanics. Nov. 19, 2013. (Jan. 18, 2017) http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a9763/did-the-soviets-actually-build-a-better-space-shuttle-16176311/
- Zak, Anatoly. "Here Is the Soviet Union's Secret Space Cannon." Popular Mechanics. Nov. 16, 2015. (Jan. 17, 2017) http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a18187/here-is-the-soviet-unions-secret-space-cannon/
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