Few people I've ever met are aware that the soviet Union had its own space shuttle. It was called Buran (snowstorm) and bore more than a little resemblance to its US counterpart; it looked like the US shuttle, it flew like the US shuttle and it was transported on the back of a huge airplance like the US shuttle. The only significant difference was that it didn't use solid rocket boosters to lift it into orbit. The Soviets stated categorically that any resemblance was strictly coincidental. Whatever.

The Buran came into being as a direct response to the US program which the Soviets determined was actually a military program disguised as a peaceful scientific and commerical program. They couldn't say exactly what the military uses for such a craft would be but that didn't matter. They felt that as the program went through design and construction its military uses would become apparent. One orbiter was built and on November 15, 1988 it lifted off (unmanned) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the USSR equivelant of Kennedy Space Center) for a fully automated flight which took it through two orbits of the earth before returning it safely to the ground. It was the only fully automated flight of an orbital vehicle ever accomplished by any nation and remains a technological achievement of the highest order.

As fate would have it though, before another launch could take place the Soviet Union collapsed and funding for such luxury defense programs dried up. No additional orbiters were built and no additional flights of the existing Buran spacecraft ever took place. The vehicle was retired to a hanger in Kazakhstan where it was destroyed when the rusting, antiquated building collapsed onto it in 2002.

Left: The Soviet Buran Shuttle seconds before its only liftoff. Right: Comparison with US Space Shuttle.