Geek Trivia

What Is The Largest Spacecraft to Perform an Autonomous Earth Orbit and Reentry?

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Photo of the only launch of the Buran space shuttle
Roscosmos Federal Space Agency

Answer: Buran

Buran, Russian for “snowstorm or blizzard”, was the Soviet response to the U.S. space shuttle program. The Buran Program was short-lived, but it did produce one of the more notable space-based achievements of the 20th century. Launched on November 15, 1988, it was the first successful launch and reentry of an autonomous space plane.

Buran entered Earth orbit—assisted by an Energia rocket—circled the planet twice, and returned to Earth with a successful airstrip landing without the intervention of a single cosmonaut (as there were none on board). The landing was remarkably precise and, despite high winds on reentry, Buran came to rest a mere 9.8 feet laterally and 33 feet longitudinally from its projected landing point.

Due to the collapse of the USSR, the Buran program was moth-balled and, in an unfortunate accident in 2002, the Buran itself was destroyed when a poorly maintained storage hanger caved in on it. Buran remains the largest autonomous space plane ever developed (weighing in at 231,000 pounds with a full payload) and for nearly 22 years was the only autonomous space plane launched—in April of 2010, the Boeing X-37B became the second space plane to successfully complete a fully autonomous Earth orbit and reentry.