Sunday, July 31, 2011

Buran - Did you know???

I love anything that has an engine and moves faster than 50 km/hr. So my love for aviation is a no-brainer. I always wanted to be a pilot and in fact, I still do. I would like to take at least a Private Pilot license some time in the near future. Space, astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Virgin Galactic are topics that I thought I always kept myself updated on. But I realized that even though I considered myself a big space junkie, I was very ignorant about what was actually happening in space.

Most of you must have noticed the recent developments regarding the NASA Space Shuttle program, unless you live in Mars that is. In case you are a Martian, then first of all "Hi dear Martian, you are welcome to visit my home unless you plan to invade us poor earthlings, we are already doing a damn good job at destroying ourselves", and secondly let me just inform you that after an amazing journey that lasted 30 years, the NASA Space Shuttle program has come to an end, mainly thanks or no thanks to Mr. Barack Obama (He had originally promised to shut down the Guantanamo Bay Prison, but on second thoughts I guess he decided to shut down the space program instead). There has been a lot of disagreements with this decision and several people, including NASA astronauts, have heaped praises on the Space Shuttle program, claiming it to be the most advanced system of its kind and at the same time have criticized the US government's decision to prematurely end the program. Read this article to get a good sense of the sadness and regret of Americans, pilots and other space lovers. An excerpt :

".....These craft are still well within their functional worklife, still capable of carrying man and machine into space. It is a shame the program is ending as early as it is. The shuttle should continue to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS and low earth orbit for at least the next decade.

.....So let's get over the political arguments, the disagreements with the decision and let's support the organization that even made any of this possible in the first place, NASA. We have a long hard road ahead for a replacement vehicle, a HUGE political battle for funding and continued support of NASA by the US government. "

So all in all, I was feeling a little sad that such an awesome machine is being put to sleep, mainly because the US needs the money to fight useless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and soon there will be several other countries in this list from the way things are going (Iran, North Korea and Libya are almost literally begging the US to attack them from the way they are handling their affairs). All over the media, the sadness at this great larger-than-life space shuttle program coming to an end is pretty obvious and it kinda leaves you with a heavy feeling and makes you think "So what next?".

But guess what? How many of you have heard about the Buran Program?? I don't think many.Vladimir Radyuhin has written an amazing article on the present situation of the space travel, which paints a realistic picture of expectations and public sentiment vs. Reality, a few excerpts (I have highlighted the major points in bold underline) :

"...When the U.S. embarked on designing a space shuttle in the late 1960s, it was widely believed that reusable space vehicles would win hands down over expendable ships by drastically cutting down the cost of spaceflight. However, the result turned out to be exactly the opposite. The cost of the 30-year space shuttle programme was more than $1 billion per launch, roughly equivalent to the cost of launching 20 Soyuz spacecraft.

The U.S. will save a lot of money by switching over to the Russian space vehicle. NASA contracts with Roskosmos for ferrying 18 U.S. astronauts to the ISS and back aboard Soyuz ships over the next five years (plus 24-month training for each astronaut, room and board, flight operations and crew rescue) will cost the U.S. only as much as a single shuttle flight. 
Soyuz being transported to the launch pad
A big advantage of the U.S. shuttles, of course, was their freight capacity. A shuttle could take to space almost 30 tonnes of cargo, 10 times more thanSoyuz, and bring down to earth two tonnes of payload, compared with just 50 kg by Soyuz. Roskosmos acknowledged the critical role of U.S. shuttles in setting up the ISS by placing bulky sections in orbit. Why then, Roskosmos asked, are the sleek U.S. “birds” gone, while the old Soyuz craft are still in business?
The answer, Roskosmos itself said, was simple: the Soyuz was more reliable and cost-effective. The spacecraft had an impeccable safety record: not a fatal accident over the past 40 years. The two Soyuz accidents involving fatalities date back to the early stages of the programme. The Soyuz-1 descent capsule crashed to earth in 1967, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, because its parachutes failed to open, and the Soyuz-11 mission in 1971 ended in a disaster when its capsule with three cosmonauts depressurised on re-entry.
While the U.S. space shuttle was far more comfortable to ride, especially on re-entry and landing, than the crump Soyuz, it certainly trailed Soyuz in safety. Out of the five space shuttles built during the 30-year-long programme, two were destroyed in accidents. In 1986, Challenger, carrying seven astronauts, broke apart 73 seconds into its flight due to a faulty engine seal. In 2003,Columbia exploded during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
The only time Soyuz was struck by an accident similar to the one that destroyedChallenger, the crew were rescued thanks to the Russian ship's launch escape system. The accident occurred in 1983 at the Baikonur launch pad. The crew were in the spaceship waiting for takeoff when a leaking fuel valve at the base of the rocket set off a fire that engulfed the rocket within seconds. Ground controllers activated the escape system, which flung away the top sections ofSoyuz with the cosmonauts inside, free from the three-stage rocket and lifted them more than one km before the descent capsule parachuted safely to land even as the launch pad crumbled in flames.

U.S. commentators who praise the sophistication of the U.S. space shuttle compared to the “primitive” Russian craft overlook the fact that the Soviet Union built its own space shuttle, Buran (Snowstorm) which, in some ways, including safety features, was superior to the American shuttle. For example, it was fitted with high-tech ejection seats for the crew that could be activated at altitudes of up to 24 km. At greater heights, Buran could detach from a malfunctioning booster rocket and glide down to a soft landing. Such an escape system could have saved the Challenger crew. Buran made its first and only flight in fully automatic mode without a crew in 1988. To overcome a crosswind of 20 metres per second, Buran's autopilot recalculated its landing trajectory and the spaceship landed on the runway from the opposite direction, to the amazement of ground controllers. It was a feat that remains unrivalled.
The Soviet space shuttle programme came to an abrupt end after the break-up of the Soviet Union, mainly for lack of funds. But before that, Buran helped push forward arms control talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because its successful flight demonstrated the Russian ability to counter President Ronald Reagan's “Star Wars” programme.

Buran was designed as the first fully reusable shuttle system, with all rocket boosters to be equipped with parachutes and retrorocket soft landing systems. By contract, the U.S. space shuttles were semi-reusable because they had a throwaway central fuel tank and its solid rocket boosters (SRB) had to be heavily refurbished after splashing in the ocean. While the U.S. space shuttle glided to earth in unpowered mode and, therefore, had only one attempt to land,Buran was designed to carry two jet engines for increased landing manoeuvres. Also, it had superior thermal protection tiles, used less toxic and more efficient liquid fuel, had a higher payload capacity and was designed to carry 10 crew members against seven by the U.S. shuttle. Buran was the first and only space shuttle ever to perform an unmanned flight in fully automatic mode until the U.S. Air Force launched its Boeing X-37 space plane last year. But then, X-37 was a much smaller craft than the 100-tonne Buran."

Damn, those Russians are smart. For almost the same size, they built a shuttle that can carry a payload of 100 tons, as compared to NASA Space shuttle's 30 ton limit, it can be completely re-used, whereas the NASA Space Shuttle is not fully re-usable, and to top it, the Buran has 2 jet engines which enable it to manoeuvre within our atmosphere, whereas the NASA space shuttle has none, so on entering the earth's atmosphere, it has exactly one shot at making a proper landing and if the astronaut in the driver's seat is sleeping then its all over, on the other hand, Buran has proved to us that it can successfully go to space and land back on earth with or without men, no matter what the conditions are. Only if that idiot Mikhail Gorbachev didn't ruin the party for us. Well let's keep our fingers crossed and wait for the next great development.