Spaceflight Insider

Russian reusable spacecraft ambitions revived

Soviet Buran space shuttle rear photo credit Le_Bourget

Russia could be eyeing a return to flying reusable spacecraft. Photo Credit: Le Bourget

The Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, a Moscow-based rocket and spacecraft manufacturer, plans to revive the former Soviet Union’s winged spacecraft program, perhaps similar to the U.S.S.R’s shuttle known as Buran (Blizzard). Started in 1974, Buran was a Soviet reusable spacecraft project undertaken as a response to NASA’s Space Shuttle program. 

According to a report appearing on Sputnik News, the revived version of the project, called the Reusable Space Rocket System, or MRKS, will be financed from 2021 through 2025. It will be developed under the Russian Federal Space Program and will cost no less than $185 million.

Buran shuttle launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 15, 1988

Buran shuttle launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 15, 1988. Photo Credit: Roscosmos/Energia

According to a report appearing  on Space Daily, the MRKS, could be launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East, will see a partially reusable launch vehicle (MRKS-1) equipped with a winged booster stage.

The reusable booster, after lifting the second, expendable stage of the MRKS vehicle into the stratosphere, would separate and return back to Earth to be prepared for its next mission.

The MRKS-1, a partially reusable modular vertical launch vehicle, is based on a winged, reusable first stage.

The vehicle features an airplane configuration and is capable of returning to the launch area for a horizontal landing. It also includes disposable second stages and upper stages. The winged first stage is equipped with reusable liquid-propellant sustainers.

The MRKS-1 will be capable of sending a wide range of payloads into space, weighing up to 35 metric tons and more. This could significantly reduce the cost of launching satellites and other spacecraft into orbit.

The Buran Program was a Soviet and later Russian reusable spacecraft project that began in 1974 at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute and was formally suspended in 1993. It was the largest and the most expensive project in the history of Soviet space exploration.

A Buran-class orbiter, named Orbiter OK-1K1, flew to space only once in 1988 and remains the only Soviet reusable spacecraft to be launched into orbit. It was launched on Nov. 15, 1988, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The shuttle orbited the Earth twice in 206 minutes of flight. On its return, it performed an automated landing on the shuttle runway at Baikonur.

Because there were striking visual similarities between Buran and NASA’s Space Shuttle, it was speculated that espionage may have played a key role in the development of the Soviet spacecraft. However, despite external similarities, many differences existed, like the absence of the main rocket engines on the Buran shuttle. It suggests that, if espionage had been a factor in Buran’s development, it would likely have been in the form of external photography or early airframe designs.

The cancellation of the Buran project left Russia without any reusable spacecraft. Similarly, the conclusion of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011 left the U.S. with no space transportation system capable of delivering astronauts into orbit.


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

The connection of this new project with the Buran is confusing, since the latter was a reusable orbiter and the former a reusable first stage booster; different function and design entirely. The real question is: what is the connection of the MRKS-1 with the Baikal program? The Baikal program has been kicking around for a while, a reusable fly-back booster with foldable wings and a jet engine. Multiple Baikal boosters would be mounted around a central core, Angara-style. The engine and wing configuration on the MRKS-1 look quite different, but I am unclear on how the MRKS-1 is supposed to be connected with its second and third stages. Belly mounted with fuel cross feed?

Since Russians typically describe strap-on boosters as the “First stage”, my guess is the system being described is actually Baikal. It would make sense with the time frame too, given Angara A5 is supposed to be launching from Vostochny around that time frame. If Musk gets stage reuse going the Russians are definitely going to be pushing reusability up the priority stack, even though they’ve been toying around with the idea as long as Angara has existed.

Meanwhile, I think Spaceflight Insider needs to work on its fact-checking analysis. Sputnik is going to make crazy claims, that can be counted on. A new booster for Russia’s dilapidating Buran fleet in just 5 to 10 years is not likely at all. A long-delayed reusability modification to the existing Angara production lines makes much more sense. If there were any commonality with the actual Burans, it would be that the Baikal concept probably descended from reusable Energia booster concept, which is probably what the state-sponsored Russian media is trying to play up.

It’s very hard to scrape up any information on the MRKS, but from what I can find it definitely doesn’t look like an alternate Baikal booster. The total payload capacity given for the vehicle (in the sputnik article) is 34 tons, 10 tons heavier than the Angara 5. It looks like the 4 engines on the MRKS are supposed to be the new RD-0162, if this is true then the MRKS is ~4 times as powerful as a Baikal. Still not clear how this is supposed to be mated to the other stages, but they probably don’t go on the top on account of the pointed nose/canards.

Entertainingly, the Sputnik article never actually says that this is connected to the Buran, aside from a misleading title. They give a tiny bit of information about the MRKS, then talk about the Buran for a while, as if the two are connected. They are not, and this is no way a revival of the Buran program. Interesting, though.

I put the likelihood of this happening about the same as a Russian lunar base and some of the other wildly expensive programs they announce ad nausem.

Per your comment about fact-checking:

Basic journalism is based off of a minimum of two sources, this article, as is most of the work you’ll find on SpaceFlight Insider, used more than that. All three sources are credible and valid.
Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Jason, thanks for the feedback. However, examination of these sources still indicates that they are misleading. Both of the first two sources have titles that are unsupported by the information contained in the articles (the final source just discusses the Buran). I will just discuss the sputnik news article, since all the other reporting seems to be based on this. The title is “Back on Track: Russia to Revive Its Reusable Space Shuttle Program”. However the characterization of the MRKS as a space shuttle, and any connection to the Buran program, are totally unsupported in the article itself. The history of Buran is discussed, as if it is relevant to understanding the MRKS, but in truth the MRKS is no more a space shuttle than the Falcon IX first stage is. It is a reusable booster. It flies, but never comes close to orbit. All of the subsequent stages are expendable. It is understandable why Sputnik News might adopt this impressive-sounding but nonsensical framing of the program, but there is no reason why subsequent reporters should promulgate it.

The article denotes what specifics on MRKS are known at this time, makes no mention of Buran in the headline and states Russia has only attempted this once before – on Buran. As has been noted, there’s not a lot of data about MRKS and the writer pulled together what could be found. We chose to touch on MRKS and Russia’s history with reusable spacecraft which, considering Buran’s prominent placement in history in this regard, is a valid comparison.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Makes sense to me, since they have only had two reusable/refurbishable spacecraft programs, to talk about both when writing about either…especially since there has only been three such ever worldwide. Any month now there is about to be only four. That puts everyone attempting such in a special club and makes each of their past such systems extraordinary.

Sorry, Jason – I have to agree with ETOH on this one. Most people, if they see “Russian reusable spacecraft ambitions revived” is automatically going to cause people to think of Buran first, and the issue is compounded by the only instantly recognizable picture accompanying the article being that of the Buran shuttle prior to launch. This leads one to initially think, before reading the article (hence misleading) that this article is referring to a restart of the Buran program. One has to read the article very carefully, and even then it is difficult to glean whether this is related to the Buran program in any way. The facts in the article are correct, but if you’re not already familiar with the MRKS program, then this article will definitely be confusing to you.

Again, to those not 100% familiar with all the details of Buran and MRKS, the top picture looks reminiscent of the back end of the US Space Shuttle, and the picture is such an extreme close-up that one could be forgiven, not having the context of a wide shot, for thinking that this picture was of the back end of Buran (especially when viewed at the same time as the other picture of Buran) and not of MKRS.

Just looked around for pictures of the back of Buran — of which there aren’t many — and the picture at the top of the article is in fact of the back end of Buran. So, to accompany the article, two pictures of Buran, none of MKRS (not even a proposed design), and we’re not supposed to think that the article is about a restart of Buran prior to reading it?

Actually MRKS-1 was known earlier as the Baikal-Angara, a variant of Angara with Baikal, a jet-powered foldable-winged flyback booster. Baikal has been in slow-as-molasses “development” (which actually consisted of modeling and several tests of prototypes in a hypersonic wind tunnel in TsAGI, discarding one of proposed wing designs) since 2001 already. Baikal-Angara/MRKS-1 is not a spacecraft and doesn’t have anything to do with Buran, it’s just a launcher with a reusable VTHL booster.

There was another candidate for MRKS-1 from Makeev OKB, Rossiyanka launcher, which was supposed to use SpaceX-style VTVL boosters, and generally looked very much like Falcon Heavy, but was proposed in early 2000s, before SpaceX was even a thing. Rossiyanka lost the MRKS-1 funding competition to Baikal.

So the article itself and the title is extremely confusing, yeah.

I figured out what the post was about in the first pass. I guess reading comprehension is on the decline and some need stuff ladled to them in small amounts. Heaven forbid someone reference the last reusable program Russia conducted, then everyone gets ‘confused’. Also, does anyone bother to click on the links before posting an endless stream of whiny comments?

The title refers to spacecraft, half of the article is about Buran and Shuttle, and there are two pictures of Buran with captions like “Russia could be eyeing a return to flying reusable spacecraft”.

It surely confusing, considering that MRKS-1 is 15 years into development already so it’s not just “being eyed”, and MRKS is not a spacecraft but an partially reusable LV.

Thanks for pointing out in such glaring detail that this is a reader-based problem. Here’s the caption again:

“Russia could be eyeing a return to flying reusable spacecraft”.

In that, it makes NO mention of Buran, it says reusable spacecraft. As MRKS hasn’t flown? Its being considered or “eyed” for flight. The sentence roughly means Russia could try flying reusable spacecraft again.

As for pictures. I Googled MRKS – the first images I saw were for a soccer club and a motorcycle. There’s no pics of this thing and this blog always includes images in its stuff. It’s not their fault if you’re too lazy to do anything other than look at the pictures before you get “confused.”

“It surely confusing?” Seriously? Really? Learn to read and write properly before you criticize the writing of others.

As for how long things were in development. Ares I and Altair were being developed for 7 years and were cancelled. The X-33 was being developed for 5 years, on and on it goes. Until it flies – it’s being eyed/considered/worked on.

It’s sad someone who can’t write has the nerve to complain about being “confused.” It goes without saying those who can’t write – can’t read. Thanks for proving this. I wouldn’t be so harsh, but you’re nitpicking and your complaints are poorly written. If you’re going to gripe about writing – yours shouldn’t suck so bad.

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