Why the Soviet Union Feared the Space Shuttle

Updated on April 18, 2019
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Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

In 2011, the Space Shuttle program officially ended. Due to budget cuts, NASA decided to retire the fabled space vehicle for good. It’s an end of an era of space flight, and for the meantime the Russian Soyuz will ferry astronauts to their destinations above. Yes, the Shuttle Program was marred with two tragedies resulting in deaths, and people thought that the whole thing was not worth the risk. Nevertheless, the contribution of this amazing piece of engineering to space exploration and science cannot be questioned.

Now, a space truck was how the Space Shuttle was presented when it first appeared. At various earth orbit, it will deliver space station components and act as astronaut transport. But later, it will serve several purposes like doing space experiments, aid in space repairs and launch satellites and probes.

But the Shuttle Program seems to worry Soviet officials quite a bit. The world was in the later years of Cold War, and space just became the new arena. The two superpowers at that time (the United States and Soviet Union) were trying to best each other. The Soviets gained a strong start with their first artificial satellite Sputnik, the first manned space flight, and the Salyut space station. But the U.S. catches up when they sent the first men on the moon. And now came the space shuttle, the first reusable space vehicle. It’s not that the U.S. just introduced superior space transport that worried the Soviets. They believed that the Spaced Shuttle is more than just a manned vehicle.

The True Purpose of the Shuttle Program

The first flight of space shuttle Columbia.
The first flight of space shuttle Columbia.

Like what was mentioned above, there was nothing malicious about building a large space plane capable of being blasted into orbit and being reused. The space shuttle is a space truck, a vehicle for delivery and transport. Flying large payloads into various orbits is just one of its functions though. It aided in the assembly of space stations, ferry astronauts, launch and recover satellites, repair missions, even launch probes. Some of its well-known missions include the repair of the Hubble Telescope and the launch of the Galileo Spacecraft.

It’s unique, in a way that it flies into space via boosters, but lands back smoothly like a commercial passenger jet. With twin rocket engines and the external tank, the space shuttle was launched vertically, while the rest of the components, except the orbiter vehicle will be jettisoned before it reaches orbit. Upon reentry, wings allow it to glide back and taxis on a runway.

And that’s pretty much it. The whole shuttle program sounds innocent enough. There was nothing to suggest that the space shuttle was meant for something sinister. Yet that didn’t stop the Soviet officials from being overly suspicious at the shuttle program. Believe or not, the space shuttle is an ominous sight for them. How sure are they that it’s merely a transport vehicle and a weapon of war?

And that was exactly how they see it.

The Space Shuttle as a Weapon

Concept art of a satellite armed with laser.
Concept art of a satellite armed with laser.

As silly as it might sounds, the Soviet Officials were convinced that the Space Shuttle was not meant for peaceful purposes. A space vehicle that could cruise at more than 20 times the speed of sound in the earth’s orbit could do a lot of damage.

The U.S. have NASA as national space agency. It’s a unified body that manage space activities. The Soviet Union on the other hand had none. Projects are managed by different design bureaus and in 1974, Valentin Glushko, a soviet engineer formed a new bureau NPO Energiya. And when the shuttle program went on public, he wondered why the U.S. is building a large space vehicle.

By Soviet military assessment, the thing is incredibly large and with vast carrying capacity. The shuttle orbiter’s payload bay with hinged doors could accommodate a cylindrical cargo up to 15 feet in diameter. What’s more the shuttle could carry 30 ton of payload and retrieve 15 tons from orbit. The officials wondered what the Americans are up to, and the only viable answer they can come up was the militarization of space. The space shuttle will be used to build military space station.

That sounds far-fetched, but an orbital military station that came close to Death Star wasn’t the only thing that worries them. The Death Star could fire high powered beam, and what if the space shuttle will launch laser firing satellites instead?

Even more outrageous than real Death Stars and death rays, the Soviet Officials also saw the shuttle orbiter as a super bomber. They are convinced that it will make a sudden dive into the atmosphere, drop bombs into Moscow and escape into orbit.

How the Soviet Union Reacted

The Buran space shuttle.
The Buran space shuttle.

It seems that the Soviet officials watched too many science fiction movies, for nothing is close to the truth. Being a civilian organization, NASA won’t have problems showing to the world details of its projects. Except for the Soviet Union, virtually none suspected that the Space Shuttle is intended to build futuristic weapons, or as a hypersonic space bomber. Fortunately for the Soviets, it’s simply impossible for the Space Shuttle to swoop down and escape into orbit. Since it required detachable rocket boosters to fly out of the atmosphere, the shuttle simply lacked the means to accomplish such feat.

Space weapons like laser firing satellites might appeal to the military, but it’s a complex and expensive project and interceptor missiles are more sensible. And the fact that no military space station exist today means that NASA never even considered one.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union strived to face this “threat,” and the Buran Program was born. It’s the Soviet version of the U.S. space shuttle, and basically an evil twin. Superficially both are similar, with only few differences. The Buran project never took flight however, as the funding was affected by the political upheaval of the Soviet Union. It’s the early 1990s, and the Soviet communism was facing its twilight years. On June 30, 1993, Boris Yeltsin officially ended the Buran program, with 20 million rubles spent on the project. The Buran space shuttle met a rather undeserving end, when its hangar collapsed in Baikonur Cosmodrome.

References

1. Amy Shira Teitel (June 27, 2015) "Why the Soviet Space Shuttle was Left to Rot." Popular Science.

2. Windrem, Robert (4 November 1997). "How the Soviets stole a space shuttle." NBC News.

3. Whitehouse, David (13 May 2002). "Russia's space dreams abandoned." BBC News.

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