Soviet Space Shuttle Orbits and Returns In Unmanned Debut

By Felicity Barringer
The New York Times

MOSCOW, Nov. 15, 1988 -- The Soviet Union's first re-usable spacecraft made a triumphant maiden voyage today. No hitches were reported from the moment a giant Energiya booster rocket powered the unmanned craft off a launching pad in central Asia until it glided to a smooth automated landing seven miles from the launching site.

The shuttle Buran, whose name means snowstorm or blizzard, completed two orbits and was aloft for 3 hours and 25 minutes.

The 100-ton craft was launched from the Baikonur space center by the two-stage Energiya rocket. When it reached an altitude of 100 miles, a final thrust from its own onboard maneuvering engines pushed it into orbit about 150 miles above the Earth, the Soviet press agency Tass said.

The Buran, similar in appearance to the American space shuttles, was surrounded after the landing by jubilant fur-hatted engineers who were shown on television lining up for group portraits in front of the white-and-black craft.

''Until this moment,'' said Yuri P. Semenov, one of the chief designers, the American shuttle ''had one advantage: it flew.''

''Today we've equaled this advantage,'' he said.

In addition, he added in an interview with Soviet television, ''We've created a ship that can automatically complete a flight from takeoff to landing.''

''Energiya and Buran have just begun to disclose their possibilities,'' said another engineer, identified on television as B. I. Gubanov.

Months of Delays

The first successful flight of the shuttle was praised by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Tass reported. Without quoting Mr. Gorbachev directly, Tass said he had described the flight as a major success for Soviet science and technology.

The Buran's launching came after months of delays, as the probable flight dates mentioned by Soviet officials to their Western counterparts slipped from the spring of 1988 to the summer, then to the fall. The most recent delay came on Oct. 29 when the scheduled liftoff of the craft was aborted just 51 seconds before the rockets were set to fire.

Today's liftoff and landing were not carried live on Soviet television, but film of both were broadcast this morning, as was a five-minute report on this evening's news program. Needle-nosed MIG-25 chase planes were shown escorting the shuttle after it re-entered the atmosphere and glided to its landing on a 2.5-mile strip on a saltbed in western Kazakhstan.

Soviet citizens reacted with calm relief to the successful flight. The state television station was peppered with phone calls 17 days ago as anxious viewers sought extended explanations of why the craft had not gone off on schedule then.

Recent Space Record

The shuttle launching coincided with the 330th day that the astronauts Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov have spent in orbit in the Mir space station. They set a record for time spent in space on Saturday, and are not expected to return to earth until late December.

A three-man joint Soviet-French crew is scheduled to be sent to the space station on Nov. 26.

The United States' shuttle Discovery went aloft in September, the first American manned space flight in 32 months, since the January 1986 explosion that destroyed the shuttle Challenger and killed its seven crewmembers. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is nearing a decision on when to launch the next shuttle mission, perhaps on Nov. 30.

Many of the details described in the Soviet press today indicate that the Soviet craft, as expected, is very similar to its American counterparts.

Capacity of 10 People

According to Tass, the crew cabin of the vehicle can accomodate from two to four astronauts, with six more seats for passengers or other crew members.

The Government newspaper Izvestia said the four booster rockets that are strapped on to the Energiya for added power in the first stage of the ascent are designed to be re-usable. And Tass said the shuttle ''can place 30 tons of payload into orbit and return from space with 20 tons.''

The fully automated landing system is one difference from the American craft. Soviet engineers had tested the landing system in an earlier atmospheric flight with an astronaut, Igor Volk, aboard.

The shuttle is capable of docking with the space station Mir, Vladimir Dunayev, head of Glavkosmos, said at a recent news conference.


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Nov. 15 (AP) - Space shuttle managers began a two-day flight readiness review today to set a date for launching Atlantis and its crew of five on a classified military mission.

The shuttle's processing director, Conrad Nagel, said Monday that NASA hoped to launch the shuttle Nov. 30, but that Dec. 1 was a more likely date because of a few remaining technical problems.

Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, who directs NASA's shuttle program, is expected to announce a launch date Wednesday afternoon after the managers review the status of the orbiter, the payload, the global tracking network and other elements needed to support the mission.

Most details about the flight are not being made public because Atlantis will be carrying a secret military payload, which knowledgable people say is a sophisticated intelligence-gathering satellite.

Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company