The Buran had a very sad fate. But in 1988 it has undertaken its first and last flight, which was unmanned and landed with a precision of three meters in a crosswind of 60 km per hour. It lost only 8 of its 38 000 thermal tiles.

What was the level of technology of automated flights in that times? Was it usual that airplanes landed automatically or was that flight of the Buran something like exceptional?

Here is an image of the Buran with Energija launch vehicle:

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(source of the image)

  • $\begingroup$ V-2 rockets have been very accurately positioned since WWII. Automatic landing systems have been in development since 1945 and in use commercially since before 1975, so I'm not sure the automatic landing of the Buran was exceptional... $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 11 '16 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ @mins For 1944 without INS and modern systems, 12km is still pretty accurate :) $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 11 '16 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ @mins You are correct, I was thinking of something a little more modern like solid state AHRS. Still think 12km is accurate given that manned powered flight itself just came into being 35 years prior. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 11 '16 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @user3624251: On the contrary, there are many spacecraft that have done unmanned landings. Granted, most of them were on other planets (or moons, asteroids, &c). $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 11 '16 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer: The neural network used on the Buran FCS was certainly exceptional, also the fact that it commanded a second approach on its own. The crosswind would had been 60 km/h on the first landing attempt. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 13 '16 at 2:55

Your question is very subjective, but I think there are two ways to look at it:

Building a working space plane is pretty exceptional.


There's really nothing it did that wasn't done by something else.

The NASA shuttle was flown in fully-automatic mode for launch, and most of reentry. It's also the vehicle which pioneered the thermal tiles, the reentry profile of a space plane, and the general concept of a shuttle. Buran could almost be thought of as an iteration on that design. The Soviets used some lessons learned and, in some respects, built a better shuttle. Does that in itself make the Buran exceptional? Probably not.

The only thing Buran really did that the NASA shuttle never did was fly unmanned, including an automatic landing. That seems to be at the heart of what you're asking, so I'll address that specifically.

Autoland had existed for decades before Buran, so it certainly wasn't the first airplane to land on autopilot. Although, it may have been the fastest autolanding to date, which could be an argument for exceptional.

I would note that even though there was only one orbital flight of Buran, there were atmospheric tests of prototype vehicles (some prototypes had jet engines), so there were opportunities to safely test the autopilot during the landing phase of flight prior to the orbital test. In fact, it would have been the only phase of the autopilot that saw real-world testing prior to launch. So once Buran got on approach, the fact that landed safely probably shouldn't be too much of a surprise.

Lastly, I've heard and read many times how amazing it is that Buran landed so close to centerline in such a dramatic crosswind (around 33 knots). I think that would indeed be pretty impressive... if it were true. However, I urge you to go look at video of Buran landing (example, mute recommended). Does that look like a 33 knot crosswind to any pilot? To me, it looks like about a 5-10 knot crosswind at most. You see the wings doing very little correcting, and the wheels touchdown at almost the same time, which is very much not indicative of a crosswind.

For comparison, take a look at STS-133 landing. Note the wing movement at 8:58 which is to correct for about a 12-knot crosswind gust, which looks about right to me. Notice how the upwind wheel hits the runway about a second before the downwind wheel hits - very indicative of a crosswind.

I have no idea where the crosswind number came from, but it was almost certainly exaggerated, either on accident (perhaps mistaking wind conditions on approach for surface wind), or intentionally exaggerated to show how great and superior Buran was. Either seems plausible to me.

I tend to be in the camp that says anything you build which successfully goes to space and comes back safely is pretty exceptional, but I wouldn't say Buran was a tremendous advancement over existing technology, and ultimately it's always going to be difficult to really assess a ship which only flew once.

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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention much of the Buran design was "copied" from data provided by NASA and the US Government on the Space Shuttle program. The VPK/KGB had an entire department of people that would photocopy design data. Its a good read if you have some extra time $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 11 '16 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer The way Bret puts it is IMHO pretty much spot on. While the Soviets used the Shuttle as basis the differences were too large to really "copy" anything. For example the thermal tiles while in theory the same as in the Shuttle, actually were different in attachment and organization. While the launch was similar it was actually different because Russian launch systems were quite different. While landing solution was the same it too would have been different in practice. One question relevant difference is that it was specifically designed for remote and automated control. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 12 '16 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer I've read that article before, but I think the significance of the espionage has been largely overstated. Both shuttles were built with very similar goals and requirements in mind, so the fact that they look and function similarly is to be expected, just like how large commercial airplanes with similar capacity and range requirements often look remarkably similar to each other - or, at least as similar as the NASA and Soviet shuttles look to each other. $\endgroup$ – Bret Copeland Mar 13 '16 at 20:13

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