The Soviet space shuttle Buran orbited the Earth twice Tuesday and landed eight miles from its launch pad in Soviet Central Asia, ending with flawless precision its unmanned 3-hour, 25-minute maiden flight.
The mission was a major success for the Soviet space program after a series of problems that included the near loss of cosmonauts on a joint Soviet-Afghan mission to the Mir space station in September.The Buran, "snowstorm" in Russian, touched down on a 2.8-mile concrete runway with a puff of dust from its rear wheels and rolled to a halt as three parachutes opened at its rear.
"The USSR has successfully tested its first reusable space craft Buran," official Radio Moscow said, interrupting regular programming two minutes after touchdown.
The flight originally was scheduled for Oct. 29, but that countdown was stopped by computers with only 51 seconds left when an access arm failed to pull far enough away from the rocket. Officials said they had since redesigned the joint.
Within 30 minutes of Tuesday's landing, Soviet television showed the fully automated approach and touchdown of the delta-winged U.S. shuttle look-alike in the middle of the barren, brown steppe.
Radio Moscow said the flight, which had been in jeopardy because of cold, rainy weather, went according to schedule, and all on-board tests were completed.
Pointing to the January 1986 explosion of the U.S. shuttle Challenger, which killed its seven crew members, Soviet officials say they will not make a manned flight until all the shuttle's systems are fully tested in unmanned flight.
They have not said when that might be.
Buran separated as planned from the liquid fuel Energia booster minutes after it lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a flame of yellow, with clouds of white steam lighting up the early morning sky.
About three-quarters of an hour later, Buran's own engines fired twice at an altitude of 99 miles, nudging the craft into its two orbits.
Television film shot from a jet aircraft showed the shuttle's dark silhouette against a pale blue-gray sky as it approached the landing site, then switched to closer shots as the shuttle landed like an aircraft.
The official Tass news agency said as it prepared to re-enter the atmosphere, the shuttle turned its tail forward and switched on a retrofire engine. At an altitude of 24 miles, the craft turned again and began its approach like an airplane.
The weather service in Moscow reported that it had been raining in Baikonur three hours before the launch and the temperature was 39 degrees. The weather at the exact launch time was not known.
Soviet television said the launch was in jeopardy because of rising wind and the danger of ice coating the shuttle and its booster.
U.S. officials will not launch the American space shuttle if there is ice on the booster rocket or orbiter. Cold temperatures contributed to the failure of booster rocket seals that led to the Challenger disaster, which halted the U.S. space shuttle program for 2 1/2 years.
Soviet space officals have said their ability to control the shuttle entirely from the ground makes it safer than the U.S. space shuttle program. And after the Soviet shuttle program begins in earnest, fully automated ground control will allow cosmonauts more time for scientific research, they say.
The United States flew its first shuttle, the Columbia, in 1981, and for years the Soviets criticized the craft as wasteful and unreliable. But Western space specialists say the Soviets began planning and building their space plane in 1982 at the latest.
Tass said Buran is 36 yards long and has a wing span of 24 yards. Like the U.S. shuttle, it is covered with 38,000 heat-proof ceramic tiles.