LKS: The Buran Alternative

LKS spaceplane on Proton rocket

An LKS orbiter atop its Proton launcher at the launch gantry. Original source and copyright status unknown, but pre-dating 2004. Note the folded wings: most sources do not mention this feature, with the implication that LKS’s wings were fixed, but the LKS is sufficiently badly documented that even this basic question is not definitively answered.

What it was: A small, 20-tonne spaceplane intended for launch on top of a Proton rocket. From 1979 to 1983, OKB-52 touted it as an alternative to the Energia/Buran shuttle.

Details: Continuing the parallel, military-oriented space program of OKB-52 (previous entries so far being the LK-700, Almaz, and the TKS), we come to the LKS. In late 1973 the Soviet government decided to respond to the prior year’s announcement by the United States that they would be building the Space Shuttle. OKB-1 was given the task of examining a large spaceplane in the same class as the Americans’, while Mikoyan and OKB-52 were ordered to look at something in the 20-tonne range.

The convulsions of 1974-75 pointed NPO Energiya, the former OKB-1, in the direction of responding to the American Space Shuttle with a quite-close copy (though not before sketching out the MTKVP), and eventually the “Buran Decision” was made in its favour in 1976.

Governmental decision or not, the ever-contrary Vladimir Chelomei and OKB-52 carried on with their own spaceplane from 1976-79 to address what they saw as Buran’s deficiencies: it was smaller, lighter, would be quicker and cheaper to develop and, in their opinion, be almost as capable. They called their two-cosmonaut craft the LKS (“Legkiy Kosmicheskiy Samolet”), meaning “Light Space Plane”.

Inevitably the LKS was to be put on top of OKB-52’s workhorse, a Proton rocket—though not man-rated, the intention was to do so for also launching the TKS anyway. This dictated much about the orbiter, starting with its mass. The Proton-K used until recently could lift just shy of 20 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, which is a bit less than a quarter of either a Shuttle or Buran orbiter carrying a full payload. So while the LKS had a similar shape to its larger cousins by design, its launch mass was only 19,950 kilograms, with a length of 18.75 meters and payload of 4 tonnes (compare with 37.24 meters and 27.5 tonnes for an American shuttle). This is, not at all coincidentally, close in mass to the TKS, and the two can be thought of flip-sides to one another as OKB-52 tried to be everything to everyone while also integrating their proposals into the larger space effort envisioned by Chelomei.

The LKS orbiter diverged from the larger shuttles in a number of other notable ways too, even after being redesigned to be essentially a half-scale version of the US Shuttle Orbiter (earlier incarnations had twin tail fins and wings with a straight leading edge). Its in-orbit engines were to burn N2O4 and UDMH, like every other motor of note proposed for use by OKB-52. Its landing gear was peculiar too, with a steerable wheel up front and landing skids under the wings. Chelomei also proposed to use a renewable ablative re-entry shield rather than the ceramic tiles common to the American and Buran orbiters. As aerodynamically similar as it was, though, it still had the same ~2000 kilometer cross-range capability and would glide in to land at a similar speed (reportedly 300 km/h, a bit slower than the Shuttle’s 350).

OKB-52 had made a full-sized mockup of the orbiter by 1981, then Chelomei pounced during the period of Soviet alarm following Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech in March 1983. In a letter written directly to Leonid Brezhnev he suggested that the LKS could be used to quickly and cheaply deploy counter-missile lasers into orbit. Sources differ on whether this was as satellites in the payload bay, or if he meant a fleet of unmanned LKSes carrying the lasers directly—but most lean towards the latter.

What happened to make it fail: Having raised the profile of the LKS as a counter to SDI, Chelomei’s efforts came under the scrutiny of the Soviet military. A state commission was convened in September of 1983, headed by the deputy minister of defense Vitali Shabanov. It eventually came to the conclusion that the LKS would not be useful for missile defense; Chelomei was reprimanded for working on an unauthorized project. Previous setbacks on his projects never had much effect on the headstrong designer, but the LKS came to a definitive end when Chelomei died in August 1984. The mock-up was apparently destroyed in 1991.

What was necessary for it to succeed: OKB-52 were right that Buran would take too long and cost too much. Originally planned to fly in 1983, the Soviet shuttle made its sole, automated flight in November 1988; even then it was not completely fitted out and was only suitable for a 206-minute flight (and the next was not scheduled until 1993!) Something like 20 billion rubles, at a time when the ruble was officially marked at better than par to the US dollar, were spent on the program.

Even at the time there was resistance to the big orbiter, but NPO Energiya and Valentin Glushko‘s grip on the Soviet manned space program was firm. First you probably have to get it loosened somehow, though not so much that Chelomei and OKB-52 took over for them—as was discussed in the previous post to this blog, that would have left the USSR flying TKS spacecraft and not LKSes.

The difficult thing here is that if a small spaceplane got built there are two other, likelier candidates. Prior to about 1990 it probably would have been the other 20-tonne study mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, Mikoyan’s. The Spiral project got even further along than LKS did, to the point of a subsonic demonstrator and orbital re-entry tests of scale models. After 1990, NPO Molniya, builder of the Buran shuttle, floated the MAKS shuttle, which introduced the wrinkle of being air-launched by the An-225 superheavy cargo plane originally designed to cart Buran around.

As a result, unless one can cook up a Soviet leader circa 1983 who had the desire to save money of Mikhail Gorbachev while also having the willingness to rise to the challenge of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the LKS probably does not fly.


Light Space Plane, LKS“, Anatoly Zak.

‘LKS’, The Chelomei Alternative to Buran“, Giuseppe di Chiara.

Malysh v teni «Burana»: Sovetskiy legkiy kosmoplan“, Oleg Makarov. Popular Mechanics (Russian Edition) #93. July 2010.

“The Soviet BOR-4 Spaceplanes and Their Legacy”, Bart Hendricx, The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 60. 2007.

Energia-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle, Bart Hendricx and Bert Vis.


5 thoughts on “LKS: The Buran Alternative

    • The Soviets often went this way when mooting spaceplanes. Spiral was to have had them too, for example. In Chelomei’s particular case he was fond of fiddly “this folds up, this pops out from that” sorts of things, so foldable wings would be characteristic.

  1. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  2. Hey, I just discovered this site and love it! I should point out though that Spiral did not originate in response to Shuttle, but was in fact the result of a long chain of studies originating the 60s as a response to Dyna-Soar.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Daniel! If you’re willing to squint at it right, Spiral even extends back to the 50s. The team that worked on the second, more rounded design of the VKA-23 formed the core of the Spiral orbiter team, with an intermediate stop working on Chelomei’s Raketoplan. I plan on discussing both before I’m done here, but I don’t want to do too many Russian spaceplanes in too short a time or else we’ll end up in MEGO (“My eyes glaze over”) territory for the readers….

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