An interview with a winner of the State Prize, holder of the Order of Honor, academician of the International Academy of Cosmonautics, Candidate of Engineering Science, scientific consultant to the President of RSC Energia Boris Ivanovich Sotnikov, who was the head of the system design department during development of the Buran orbiter.

Воспоминания Б.И. Сотникова о ...
Воспоминания Б.И. Сотникова о проекте «Буран» (часть 1)
Воспоминания Б.И. Сотникова о ...
Воспоминания Б.И. Сотникова о проекте «Буран» (часть 2)

Oleg Volkov*: Boris Ivanovich, on November 15 of this year we celebrated one more anniversary of the Buran launch. It was a successful project, but unfortunately, that first launch became the only one. Quite some time has passed since then. What your most lasting memories about the pre-launch processing and launch and the subsequent fate of the project?

B.S.: Well, first of all, the launch was originally scheduled not on November 15, but rather on October 29. On that day the weather was fine. Good weather conditions, just excellent, preparations for launch were progressing smoothly, all pre-launch services operated normally, systems operated normally, but at 41 seconds before lift-off an abort command was issued to all systems and the onboard systems were shut down because a tower had not disconnected from the launch vehicle. And the launch was cancelled, with subsequent debriefing and draining of propellants. That’s what happened on the first launch day.

O,V.: Were the conditions different on November 15?

B.I. After investigation into the causes of this incident and working out some flaws in the launch vehicle, the launch was scheduled for November 15. The weather was, to put it straight, lousy: snow, rain, wind. Wind gusts were up to 20 m/s. The maximum wind velocity for Buran is 16 m/s. But a decision was made to proceed with the launch. Everybody went to their workstations. By 11 hours before the lift-off (which was scheduled for 6 AM) everybody was supposed to be at their workstations in the bunker. And at about 1 AM a radiogram comes in from the weather service stating that a worsening in weather conditions is expected, with gusts of wind as high as 20 m/s and a decision needs to be made: To launch or not to launch, to get ready for this or not. The State Commission held an emergency meeting. And they decided to proceed with the launch.

O,V.: Who took upon himself the responsibility for committing to launch?

B.S.: Well, there was no one particular individual who made the decision.

O,V.: Technical managers?

B.S. The technical managers – Semenov, Lozinsky, Lapygin. These three persons were responsible for the launch itself and for the Buran readiness.

So, we started to get ready. The weather was going from bad to worse. Although I was sitting in the bunker and was not exposed to the weather, but there continuous reports and I saw... The weather was just horrible. But, nevertheless. Preparations were successfully completed. All the systems operated normally. The launch went well, without any anomalies. The lift-off occurred one second late, not at 6h00m00s, but rather at 6h00m01s. After that everything went according to plan.

O,V.: As far as I know, an unusual maneuver was observed during landing.

B.S.: It was not exactly unusual. You were correct in saying that, at the altitude of about ten km Buran was supposed to check its course, to once again get its bearings with respect to the landing strip and make corrections to its course. From where we stood, the conditions looked normal, but Buran began to behave in an unusual way. It turned around and headed in the direction across the landing strip, literally across it, and flew away from us. There it made a maneuver and returned to the landing strip. Subsequent analysis showed that it was the only correct maneuver under the existing wind and velocity conditions. Test pilots said that they could never do anything like that. It was a very tense moment for us. But in the end we found out that Buran was right.

O,V.: Didn’t you have a feeling that it was some glitch in the software?

B.S.: No, at first it was unclear, but then we checked it, everything turned out to be OK. It made a precise touch-down, ran for 1620 meters and came to a stop 3 meters away from its target mark. Only 3 meters! And it stood still.

O,V.: Boris Ivanovich, we all understand that Buran was modeled after its predecessor, the Space Shuttle.

B.S.: Yes, that’s right.

O,V.: But was it an exact copy of the Space Shuttle, or were there any features the distinguished the Soviet spacecraft from the Space Shuttle Orbiter?

B.S.: Buran was not an exact copy. This is written everywhere. Oversimplifying it a little, one might say that Space Shuttle is a spacecraft with a large external tank, while Buran-Energia is a launch vehicle which can carry into orbit all kinds of payloads. Space Shuttle can only put into orbit those things that it carries inside it. Buran could also take into orbit up to 30 tons, in the same manner as the Space Shuttle, but the launch vehicle Energia by itself can put into orbit various payloads. And this the fundamental difference of the Buran. Or rather, of the Energia system, it’s not Buran that would be capable of doing this.

O,V.: What about Buran’s automatic landing?

B.S.: Only our orbiter had automatic landing capability. Fully automated landing of such a spacecraft was for the first time implemented by us.

O,V.: And why was it decided to make automatic landing, which was different from the Space Shuttle?

B.S.: First of all, such decision was made because, according to specifications, our orbiter was supposed to be able to land without a pilot. We needed to prove this. There were automatic landings performed before this: Air planes, flying models. But in all those cases automatic descent continued only to a certain altitude. The lowest altitude of 1.5 – 2 meters was the limit. After that the pilot was supposed to take over the control and roll on the runway. When Buran performed touch-down and rolled to a stop, the control system was supposed to guide it all the way to the stop. It was not supposed to veer off. And that’s the achievement of our designers: It was fully automatic from touchdown to stop. Space Shuttle was not capable of doing this. In the Space Shuttle the pilots assumed control at the altitude of 1.5 – 3 meters and guided the Orbiter to a stop.

O,V.: Speaking about creative approach to development efforts brings to mind the task assigned to Korolev to recreate Von Braun’s rocket. In the end, Korolev’s R-2 rocket incorporated new engineering solutions, which did not exist in the original rocket. A creative person doesn’t just make copies. Having analyzed the bigger picture (level of industrial development, scientific developments, areas of research), he creates something of his own, something unique. That is why Buran, in spite of its apparent resemblance, is radically different from the Space Shuttle.

B.S.: I agree. What was our guiding principle when designing all manned spacecraft? In case the pilot got ill or incapacitated, the spacecraft should be able to land automatically. And that’s what was demonstrated. There were no pilots onboard at all. The capability for the pilots to intervene in Buran control was provided, but it was very difficult to do.

O,V.: Boris Ivanovich, at the beginning of our talk you mentioned that Buran needs to be considered not as something separate from the launch vehicle, but rather as a part of the system. What is so unique about the launch vehicle Energia, which is much less talked about than Buran?

B.S.: Energia-Buran is a complex system. It comprises the launch vehicle Energia and Buran orbiter. This says it all. That’s what it is all about. We don’t just have a Buran orbiter, but rather a system, Energia-Buran. Launch vehicle Energia can put into orbit various payloads. Inside itself Buran, just as the Space Shuttle, could carry a payload of up to 30 tons. By the way, launch vehicle Energia which had been launched on May 15 carried a payload which was called Polus. That cargo weighed about 100 tons.

O.V.: Did Energia have the world’s highest lifting capacity?

B.S.: No. The entire Space Shuttle system (not the Orbiter itself) could put into orbit 124 tons.

O,V.: And we did not try to emulate this lifting capacity?

B.S.: No, we didn’t. Why would we? We reached the Shuttle Orbiter’s lifting capacity of 30 tons. Further experience demonstrated that such lifting capacity was fairly high. We could have designed a lower lifting capacity into the Orbiter. It would have been in greater demand. A 30-ton capacity orbiter takes a lot of time and money to prepare for launch. Remember that the cost of each Space Shuttle ground processing was more than 100 million dollars.

O,V.: Are the costs of processing our spacecraft and the Space Shuttle comparable?

B.S.: I can only speak about the processing of the first spacecraft. They are comparable. It’s just that we have different kinds of money.

O,V.: Boris Ivanovich, whenever a new piece of hardware, especially a vehicle like this, is being developed, it always requires cooperation between many organizations, it calls for new engineering solutions. Were there any such engineering solutions during Buran development?

B.S.: Certainly. By the end of our work on Buran, we had prepared proposals to introduce into the national economy the newly developed machine tools, alloys, materials and software. They touched upon every field. Proposals to introduce specific technologies were developed. Landing that does not depend on weather, all-weather airfield, then materials. Amazingly enough, thermal protective coatings used on Buran, the carbon-based material of the coating, besides being new to rocket technology turned out to be an ideal material for prosthetic devices. Amazingly enough, human tissue was compatible with this material. For the first time in space technology, we introduced a diagnostic system, which checked the status of onboard systems prior to launch, at the beginning of the flight. It could make decisions on its own to abort or change the mission without man. It was the only option for situations which call for making quick and correct decisions. We met with developers of nuclear power plants, which have control panels with outputs for a multitude of sensors. We developed a system, where you do not have to look anywhere. The system itself determines which parameters are out of norm, warns the operator about the off-nominal situation and makes decisions on its own.

O,V.: And why wasn’t this system adopted after the Chernobyl disaster?

B.S.: Nothing was adopted. It takes money to do this. In order to adopt a new system, the industry needs money. We are told that there is no money. What can be adopted when there is no money? And what happens now? We all remember that those hockey players who died in that recent air crash. I still can’t understand, whether there were brakes or not, were they on or off…A system like ours would have shut down everything, the plane would have come to a stop and would have stood still. It wouldn‘t have taken off.

O,V.: Boris Ivanovich, I believe that what you have told us about is a clear example of the use in the national economy of what was originally developed for space industry. Because we all want our country to develop and that the space industry be a part of that development.

B.S.: What is needed for this, is, first of all, the decision of the leadership. That’s all. It should be noted that Americans have found use for all the things they developed for Saturn, Apollo and Space Shuttle. And what they got was: Each dollar spent on these systems brought them 5 dollars.

O,V.: Let’s wish that our country will have every ruble invested in Buran paid off.

B.S.: No. It would be too difficult to do this now.

O,V.: Boris Ivanovich, can you remember any stories, tragic or funny dating back to the time when Buran was being developed. You stayed so long on that tour of duty.

B.S.: The most unusual story was this. Originally Buran was not called Buran. It was called Baikal. And the lettering on its side read: “Baikal”. It was, of course photographed by the Americans, like this. But then our leaders, different at the time, said: “What kind of a name is Baikal? Sounds like the name of a popular soft drink. Give it a different name”. It was then that the Commission decided to scrap the old name, and rename it to Buran. But “Baikal” was the name written on the thermal protective coating and you can’t scour the thermal protection. So, the question arose how to remove this lettering. Our enthusiasts, young people as is usually the case, tried to do this with a common eraser. And they did remove it, the layer with the lettering sort of peeled off. And they wrote what is written now. The old name, “Baikal”, wasn't just any random name, it was given for a reason. A competition had been held to find the best name. Baikal means Russia, it’s the homeland. And that’s how it all ended.

O,V.: Boris Ivanovich, are there any other things that are memorable for you? Is it really so interesting to work in the space industry?

B.S.: If we are talking about Buran, that was a colossal project. It had an impact on everything. It turned out manned space flight around towards a new direction. A whole new field of aerospace was created. It laid the groundwork for the future. But then the entire network of subcontractors was allowed to fall apart.

O,V.: What about the airplane “Mria”, which carried “Buran”? These are not built anymore?

B.S.: “Mria”. Only one unit exists. This is, of course, the property of Ukraine. There is, figuratively speaking, no place for it. For now, Molniya (the name of the company – editor’s note) has come up with a proposal to build an aerospace system and use this plane to launch payloads. But this is just a proposal.

O,V.: Hasn’t the Sea Launch adopted the Zenit rocket from the Buran project?

B.S.: No. I wouldn’t put it this way. It has nothing to do with Buran. The Sea Launch is an independent project, which does use the Zenit rocket that had been used as a rocket stage in the Energia launch vehicle.

O,V.: Doesn’t the Sea Launch use automatic diagnostic system from Buran?

B.S.: Energia launch vehicle used it. This diagnostics system, depending on the failure, could guide the launch vehicle Energia to a one-orbit trajectory, to an emergency landing, it assured safe landing of the Buran. The Sea Launch didn’t use any of these. They discarded all of these. On the Sea Launch everything is as usual. They don’t need maneuvers. They don’t much care about a failure. (Because this is not a manned spaceflight project – Editor’s note)

O,V.: In your opinion, all those things designed for Buran, do they have a future? Or are they now obsolete?

B.S.: Surely, they have a future. They just need to be reanimated, figuratively speaking. Take, for example, Yevgeni Mikrin, our First Deputy General Designer, who was an active participant in the Buran project, and is now trying, to some extent, to introduce these engineering solutions. We hope for the best.

*Oleg Volkov is a member of the editorial board of the Great Start project






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