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Energia as known to the West in 1988
Part of Buran Family

CIA Soviet LVs 1983

CIA Soviet LVs 1983
Credit: © Mark Wade

Author's Note: This article dates from ca. 1988. It provides an indication of what was known at that period....

Oddly, the launch of Russia's new heavy-lift Energia launch vehicle in May of 1987 must have been met with some relief within certain offices of the Pentagon. It finally fulfilled the imminent launch predictions the American Department of Defense had been making for years. Far from being a surprise, the launch was for the West the culmination of over a decade of rumours, leaked intelligence reports, and scare-mongering congressional testimony. For the Soviets, it was the final triumph after twenty-five years of effort to launch a booster of this class. The first launch the following year of the space shuttle Buran also marked the culmination of as many years of on-again, off-again Soviet efforts to fly a winged reusable spacecraft. Ironically, at this moment of triumph, the entire Soviet space effort was on the verge of huge cutbacks and cancellations due to the collapse of the Communist system.

Development of the original Soviet superbooster started in 1960. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev initially designed it as a booster to place 40 to 50 tonnes into low earth orbit. Korolev turned to turbine engine designer Kuznetsov to design all engines after a dispute with leading rocket engine designer Glushko on storable versus cryogenic fuels. With the decision in 1961 to accept President Kennedy's moon race challenge, on uprated version of the N-1 became part of the abortive program to make a Russian the first man on the moon. The gigantic vehicle, designated "G" by the Library of Congress, "TT-5" by the Central Intelligence Agency, and "SL-15" by the U.S. Department of Defense, was referred to by the Soviets as N-1, "Carrier", "N" class, or "Enerdin". It had a lift-off thrust of four million tonnes, was conical in shape, involved clustering of 30 engines in the first stage alone, and used plug nozzle concepts to optimise exhaust velocity at all altitudes. However critics in the Soviet Union said that "It did no burn kerosene. It burned money."

The four attempted launches of the N-1, between 1969 and 1972, were all unsuccessful. The first flight came on February 21, 1969. It lifted off into the sky, and it must have seemed for a minute that the USSR still had a chance of beating the U.S. to the moon. However premature engine shutdown 70 seconds after launch ended the flight and Soviet hopes. The second attempt came on July 3, 1969, only two weeks before the flight of the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. It blew up before lift-off, destroying the launch complex.

Although the objective of a Soviet lunar landing was not dropped, other uses for N-1 were identified. There was confidence that it would be available for launch of a 150 tonne station in the late 70's, resulting in a permanent manned presence in space. Following reconstruction of the launch site, the third launch came on July 27, 1971. Immediately upon lift-off, an axial rotation was introduced by gas dynamics of the thirty first stage engines. The booster worked for only seven seconds, then fell back to the pad. The fourth test in November 23 1972 was most successful. The N-1 flew for 107 seconds, only to explode on the scheduled shutdown of the centre six first stage engines. Together with the failures in the space station program, this final setback led to the sacking of the chief designer, Mishin, and a complete reconstruction of the space program. The N-1 was cancelled in May 1974, though development of its engines continued until 1976. Two fully assembled, and four partially assembled rockets available at the time of cancellation were scrapped. The only tangible remains are an enormous tank bulkhead in a children's playground in Leninsk and other pieces scattered around the space complex..


Concurrent early development work on Soviet manned winged spacecraft started in the early 1960's. Winged vehicles had been studied in the late 1950's. Work began in earnest with the 1962 Mikoyan study "50-50". The design was also referred to as "Raketoplan". This envisioned a hypersonic air-breathing first stage that would accelerate to Mach 5.5. A second rocket stage with a one man winged orbiter atop it would then continue into low earth orbit. Lift-off weight was 140 tonnes. Disappointment was keen when the Soviet military, which was paying the bills, cancelled the project in 1969. The entire plan was seen as "sheer fantasy", with no military utility. However it was resurrected on a small scale three years later. A prototype spaceplane, nicknamed "Lapot" after its resemblance to traditional Russian footwear, was built by the MiG bureau to verify the aerodynamics in subsonic flight. The turbojet powered craft was 8 m long X 7.4 m wide X 3.5 m high with a gross weight of 10,300 kg. Igor Volk made the first flight in 1976. Eight flights had been completed up to final cancellation in 1978.
The N-1 failures, the death of the first crew to man the Salyut 1 space station in June 1971, and the failure to launch Salyut 2 and 3 in 1972 before the American Skylab led to a complete reassessment of the Soviet manned space program. Chief Designer Mishin and the head of the cosmonaut corps were both sacked. Resumption of development of the Lapot lifting body was authorised in 1974. While immediate (and successful) action was taken to get Soyuz redesigned and Salyut back on track, a fundamental re-examination was made of the technical approaches to large booster and manned spacecraft design then in use. The result of the reassessment was a change in large booster design philosophy. A major redirection was to "try what works" - i.e. to emulate American design practices. By mid-1974 the U.S. Space Shuttle completed definition, and there was much to study in what the Americans were doing. Following a period of intense reappraisal, a new long range plan for Soviet spaceflight was completed. The following programs were begun in 1976:

1. Development by Glushko's bureau of a high pressure, high energy liquid oxygen/hydrogen engine - with a single-chamber thrust of 200 tonnes. The 232 tonne thrust engine in development for the U.S. space shuttle was to be the basis for this engine (the Soviet Union having no experience at all with these propellants).

2. Development by Glushko's bureau of a reliable large liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket motor with a single chamber thrust of 200 tonnes. The RD-111 of 166 tonnes thrust had already been demonstrated by Glushko in the mid-1960's. The equivalent NK-33 from the rival Kunznetsov bureau was rejected for further development. Interestingly, twenty years later the NK-33 was again rejected for the Glushko engine in another competition, this time by Lockheed-Martin for upgrading of the Atlas booster.

3. Utilisation of a modular approach to provide heavy lift, shuttle, and medium lift launch vehicles from the same family of components. Further work on the N-1 would be abandoned. Chief designer for the new family would be Yuri Semenov. The basic "Energia" vehicle would consist of a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen core vehicle based on the U.S. space shuttle's external tank design. Unlike the shuttle, four of the new oxygen/hydrogen engines would be clustered at the base of the tank (in the shuttle, three engines are mounted at the base of the shuttle orbiter, and are recovered). Clustered around the core would be four liquid oxygen/kerosene strap-on stages, taking the place of the two solid fuel strap-ons used in the U.S. design (The Russians in 1976 were still experiencing great difficulties in developing large solid rocket motors for their ICBM program. They perhaps also had reservations from a safety standpoint - justified, as the USA's later Challenger disaster showed). In this configuration, known as "Energia", the launch vehicle could put 105 tonnes into low earth orbit. One of the strap-ons would alternatively form the first stage of a two stage vehicle capable of placing 10 tonnes into low earth orbit (dubbed "Zenit").

4. Development of a space shuttle, copying the American aerodynamic design. This was assigned to Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, designer of the original "Lapot", who left the MiG bureau to pursue the new program at the NPO Molniya Bureau. The shuttle, named "Buran", would be launched by the Energia vehicle.

5. Continuation of the indigenous Lapot lifting body, but now to be launched by an expendable booster (Zenit). This project, still mysterious, was dubbed "Uragan" , and perhaps was seen by the military as insurance against failure in development of the space shuttle or new booster family.


This enormous program was actually several times bigger and more challenging than the Soviet moon program. Total development costs from 1976 to 1989 would exceed 14 billion roubles, almost five times more than the three billion roubles reportedly spent on development of the N-1.

Some American practices were adopted. One was to carry the shuttle or other payloads in a side-mounted position, thereby reducing loads and weight of the core vehicle. Yet there was also a return to the design philosophy used on the Soyuz and Proton launch vehicles by Korolev and Chelomei: clustering of liquid fuel "strap-on" components with aerodynamic fairings around a central core.

Go ahead to proceed on the new program was obtained in 1976. Radio Moscow clearly described Energia's core dimensions in an October 1978 broadcast. The Soviet shuttle, it was stated, would have "delta wings and a cigar-shaped fuselage with three powerful rocket motors...overall length 200 feet (60 m) with fuel containers around 26 feet (8 m)". Work on facilities improvement began the following year. Construction of a shuttle runway began north-west of the N-1 assembly building in late 1978. By 1981 the runway had been surfaced and a new Energia pad was under construction.

Lapot manned drop tests from a Tu-95 bomber began in 1976. Test pilot-cosmonauts assigned were Volk, Levchenko, Shchukin, Borodai, Bachurin, Balandin, Stankvicikus, and Kononenko. Kononenko was killed in a crash in 1978. 1/8 scale model tests of a substantially redesigned vehicle, the B-4, were flown as Kosmos 1374, 1445, 1517, and 1615 in 1982-1984. These tested revised aerodynamics and thermal tiles and nose cap material applicable to both the Lapot and Buran vehicles. A full scale manned version was prepared for launch the by new Zenit booster, and the pilot-cosmonauts assigned continued in training and flying the subsonic test vehicles.

There was some confusion within the U.S. intelligence community in 1978 as the two-pronged program had not yet been recognised. At that point, still expecting the Russians to follow their optimistic plans of 1970, the intelligence community was awaiting an imminent testing of a 20 tonne manned Lapot atop a Proton booster, followed by full scale test of the orbiter before 1985 and the entire, totally reusable Raketoplan "50-50" by 1990.

When the B-4 first orbited on 3 June 1982, it was only the subscale, unmanned version, weighing one tonne and launched from the secondary launch centre at Kasputin Yar. The defence community, tied to their preconceptions, were at first more willing to believe that a Proton launch pad had been secretly built at Kasputin Yar than that this was only a subscale test. However recovery pictures obtained by the Australians showed the spacecraft to be only 3.4 m long, 0.9 m high, with a wingspan of 2.8 m.

Meanwhile development of the Soviet shuttle was moving ahead. Two M-4 Bison bombers had been modified to carry large payloads atop their fuselage. One, with a Buran atop it, ran off the end of the runway at the Ramenskoye flight test centre outside of Moscow. They were also seen transporting Energia's strap-ons and core assemblies from the factories near Moscow and in the Ukraine to Tyuratam.

While this story can be pieced together in retrospect, U.S. intelligence services had considerable problems in keeping track. In 1974, it was reported that a static test stand had been built to work out the bugs in the N-1 vehicle. By 1978 the project had been considered abandoned. Then in 1980, after closely following Soviet shuttle developments for two years, it was suddenly realised that work was proceeding on a heavy lift vehicle again, now in a new configuration. Indeed, construction of Buran and Energia had actually began in 1980. Later in 1980 it was reported that work was going forward on a vehicle with a thrust of 5 to 6 million kgf with a 100 tonne payload, first launch in 1983. By 1981 reported payload had grown to 175-210 tonnes, and identified payloads were large directed energy weapons or space stations. In 1982 payload had declined again to 100 tonnes but the possibility was first raised that the upper stages would use liquid oxygen/hydrogen propellants. First launch was predicted in 1983-1984, with a 2-4 per year launch rate thereafter.

In 1983 the Department of Defense revealed what was known of the configurations of the new family of launch vehicles for the first time. The strap-ons of the Energia, the shuttle launcher, and the first stage of the new medium lift launch vehicle seemed to be of similar configuration - 4.5 m in diameter, 35 m long, with a fuelled mass of around 250 tonnes. The shuttle seemed to use two strap-ons and the Energia was stated to have 2-3. The strap-ons differed from prior Soviet practice in having blunt noses not faired into the central body. The shuttle and the Energia also shared a similar core vehicle, although that of the Energia was shorter. An upper stage, absent from the shuttle vehicle, completed the Energia. The estimates of lift-off weight published made it clear that a combination of higher-density conventional liquid propellant stages and lower density liquid oxygen/hydrogen propellant stages were used. Payload was now set at 130-150 tonnes.

The 1983 DOD Soviet Military Strength report also provided the first artist's concept of the large delta winged shuttle. The vehicle illustrated was 37 m long, with a wingspan of 18 m and a highly-swept wing with an area of 200 sq. m. However by mid-1983 it was being reported that the Soviet shuttle was much more similar in configuration to the American shuttle, and the 1984 edition of the DOD annual would show a shuttle dimensionally identical to the U.S. vehicle.

In October of 1983 it was reported that the first of the Energias had been moved to the pad "under camouflage nets" to hide its configuration. However, no launch occurred, and when the next year's report was issued by DOD, the first space station launch was now predicted for 1985, although a test launch was not ruled out for 1984. Payload had now steadied at 150 tonnes. The latest artist's conception of the launch facility and vehicles showed six or more faired strap-ons about the Energia core, more in keeping with traditional Soviet design practice. Meanwhile, the less glamorous but still intriguing Zenit ("SL-16" to the DoD) had not been launched either. The SL-16, with a payload capacity midway between the Soyuz and Proton launch vehicles, could conceivably replace them both.

Reports in 1984 only increased confusion. It was accurately stated that first flight test of the Energia would be with a "cut down" four strap-on model lacking the upper stage. But other details concerning the dimensions and propellants used in various stages contradicted not only previous statements but also engineering logic. Exotic fuels like "slush hydrogen" were mentioned. By mid-1985 DOD reports would again in line with pre-1984 analyses and logic.

The first Buran actually rolled out in 1984. This was the full scale "Aero-Buran" analogue with four turbojet engines. Aero-Buran was flown by alternate two-man crews ( Levchenko/Shchukin, Bachurin/Borodai).

At the end of 1984 it was reported in a Defense Intelligence Agency analysis that the problems that led to the overrun at Ramenskoye had been overcome and that the shuttle was at last approaching drop tests. A very long aerodynamic fairing was now visible on the shuttle's tail. Actually the modified M-4's were used only to transport the stripped-down Buran orbiters from the factory near Ramenskoye to Tyuratam for final assembly. Drop tests of a full-up Buran were not possible from the overloaded M-4 bomber. By mid-1985 a second shuttle orbiter was observed at Ramenskoye (evidently the first spaceworthy Buran). There was still no evidence that "drop tests" had yet been conducted. The actual first flight of Aero-Buran came on 10 November 1985 from the runway at Tyuratam and lasted 12 minutes with a 1000 m altitude being achieved. The second flight lasted 36 minutes on 3 January 1986. A total of 24 flights were accomplished with the last on 15 April 1988.

U.S. intelligence reports corresponded closer to reality as the actual launch date approached. In 1985 DOD reports showed the Energia strap-ons again identical with the SL-16 first stage, and the Energia core with the projected shuttle core. The SL-16 was reported to have been moved back and forth to the assembly building several times in early 1985 after more than a year on the pad. The Energia, in the four-strap-on configuration, began its second year on the pad without being launched.

At this point in time it became obvious that the development program was in serious trouble, and one or more years behind schedule. Launch of the SL-16 was not predicted until 1986, and the Energia would have to be at least a year later than that. Another possibility was that the vehicles on the pads might not be actual flyable hardware - perhaps only facility verification boilerplates.

Informal discussions with Soviet authorities in 1985 indicated that at this time there was no intent to carry Lapot beyond the subscale tests already conducted. It was also stated that the Shuttle project was not necessarily heading toward actual use in space. In retrospect this can be seen to be hedging against failure of either of the programs. Despite these indications that Soviet winged spaceflight was still in a rather aimless technology exploration stage, the U.S. Department of Defense issued illustrations of the Soviet shuttle on docking approach to an advanced Salyut and the Lapot on an anti satellite mission. Certainly U.S. Air Force covert development of a light manned spaceplane, begun in 1984, indicates worry of being one-upped by a similar Soviet development.

In any event, 1986 finally saw some flight action for the new vehicles. A 1/8 scale model of Buran itself, the B-5, weighing 1,400 kg, made suborbital flights in 1986 and 1988 at Mach 16. By April of 1986, the first stage of the SL-16/strap-ons of Energia had completed four successful suborbital tests. It was also finally detected that Buran had begun flight tests, but with jet engines. By March 1987 it was verified that the SL-16 had been used for several launches. Energia completed a successful test firing on the pad of several seconds duration. After so many years of extremely cautious preparation, the way seemed clear for the first flight. There was not long to wait.

Energia was launched on May 15, 1987 at 1730 GMT, and the strap-ons and core vehicle put the payload canister into an orbital insertion trajectory. But the canister's engines failed, and a payload described by American defence officials as "heavy and complex" burned up over the Pacific. In the spirit of Glasnost, the launch was carried on Soviet television and pictures were released immediately. More details were released at the Moscow Space Future Forum in November 1987.

The new information showed that each of the four strap-ons and the core vehicle had four engines. All twenty engines of the booster are ignited at lift-off. The strap-ons were planned to have dual parachute systems, housed in large external canisters, that would return them to earth in a horizontal position. Surprisingly, the Russians have also announced plans to recover the core's propellant tanks and engines as separate pieces. The payload canister, an ugly black thing in its first test, has an orbital manoeuvring system in its base for orbital insertion and manoeuvre. As launched, the vehicle has four strap-ons. Most analysts expected six eventually, but this would require moving the payload to a stacked second stage, which does not fall in the realm of the technically easily. It seemed more likely that the Soviets would spend many years working out the uses of Energia in its original configuration rather than proceeding immediately to "growth" versions. Launch rate, according to the Russians, would be only one or two a year for some time.

1987 brought the "second" cancellation of the Lapot program, possibly due to success of Energia's first flight and the imminent launch of Buran. The pilots assigned to Lapot were transferred to the regular cosmonaut corps.

Buran was first moved to the new purpose-built launch pad on 23 October 1988. The first launch attempt on October 29 was aborted 51 seconds before lift-off due to late separation of a gyro update umbilical. First launched finally came at 0300 GMT 15 Nov 1988. After two orbits the unmanned spacecraft landed at Tyuratam's 4.5 km long runway at 0625 GMT.

Just what the heavy-lift version of Energia was to be used for was a bit mysterious. The first large space station core to be launched with Energia, dubbed Mir 2, was not to be launched until 1992-94 at the earliest. Similarly, no planetary probes announced to the end of this century require anything bigger than the Proton. The fear in America, which had embarked on design of a new heavy lift vehicle for the same purpose, was that Energia was to be used for lifting "star wars" payloads into space. Large scale experiments with beam weapons at Semipalatinsk and lasers at Sary Shagan in the mid-seventies coincide closely with the decision to proceed with Energia. The purpose of the evil-looking payload of the first launch was announced as "material processing" four years after the launch, but was thought to be of a more military nature at the time.

It seemed inconceivable at the time that the 1987 and 1988 first launches of Energia and Buran could be their last. The disintegration of the Soviet economy and political system, not in small part due to the ruinous expense of thirty years of "keeping up" with the Americans in aerospace projects, put the entire Soviet space program in serious jeopardy. The Mir space station, to be manned by a crew of twelve and serviced regularly by Buran, was descoped to a crew of two. Plans for a "Mir 2", to be launched by Energia, and for manned Mars missions, also requiring that booster, were postponed indefinitely.

Aero-Buran is worn out and can not be used again. Buran 1 turns out to have been a desperate propaganda mission. It flew without life support system checkout and the CRT displays did not have any programs designed for them. Limited computer memory set the mission duration to two orbits and only one landing site (Tyuratam). The second Buran was to be completed by the end of 1990 with a flight to have been in fall 1991. Dubbed "Ptichka", the spacecraft will now never fly. The third and final Buran is due for completion in 1992 but will become a museum piece as well.

The Energia became a booster without a payload, the Buran a shuttle without a destination to shuttle to. In the end, far from heralding a new age of Soviet space exploration, the Energia program rang in its complete demise.


Photo Gallery

Soviet Program PlansSoviet Program Plans
Soviet space program - reconstruction in 1987, before Perestroika.
Credit: © Mark Wade


CIA Soviet LVs 1985CIA Soviet LVs 1985
Credit: © Mark Wade



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