Here's a bookend of sorts to my post from earlier today about the success of China's high-speed rail network. It's a reminder that, for all the foresight they occasionally show, governments, particularly authoritarian ones, regularly make astonishingly poorly informed decisions.

The article, published a couple of days ago, is from the technology magazine Ars Technica. From my understanding of the Soviet space program, it doesn't add a lot that is new about the doomed Buran program. But it is helpful to be reminded so starkly of how the Soviet politburo came to its decision to launch a hugely expensive program to build a rival to the US shuttle. The Soviets believed (not without reason) that the US shuttle was at least in part a military program. So here's what they did:

Faced with the poorly understood threat of a military space shuttle, the Soviets decided that copying the American spacecraft exactly was the best bet. The logic was simple: if the Americans were planning something that needed a vehicle that big, the Soviets ought to build one as well and be ready to match their adversary even if they didn’t know exactly what they were matching.

'Even if they didn’t know exactly what they were matching.' Sounds like a Strangelovian parody, no?

Only one Buran orbiter was ever finished. It was launched into space once in 1988 without cosmonauts aboard, and flown by remote control back to earth. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the program fell into disrepair, and the orbiter was destroyed in 2002 when the roof of the hangar it occupied collapsed.

BTW, if you think only the Soviets could be capable of such epic foolishness, read this brilliant take-down of the US shuttle program.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25.