The idea behind the Shuttle was "disposable parts are cheap, everything expensive is recovered" - in particular, the three highly advanced engines, plus their systems. The huge but simple fuel tank was discarded. The intent (although not realized) was immense reduction of costs per launch due to heavy reuse of the components.

Buran didn't carry the engines - it was strapped to a disposable Energia launcher, with disposable liquid fuel boosters, and I don't really see any obvious advantages (present, or intended but not delivered) over non-recoverable designs. Maybe it would possess the capacity of recovering satellites from orbit (although I never heard of such intent in relation to Buran) but that's a minor advantage and I doubt it would be worth the expense. So - why?

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    $\begingroup$ My understanding is that Buran was a political exercise forced on the soviet space program to show the world that anything the US could do the USSR could do. The sole intended benefit was bragging rights as the system lacked missions even before it was built. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Jun 14 '17 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ Note the Energia launcher was planned to be reusable $\endgroup$
    – Jack
    Aug 12 '18 at 15:28

The entire Buran programme was a response to the US developing the Space Shuttle. The Soviets saw that a winged orbiter had some unique properties that they wanted to replicate (e.g. the ability to bring back large payloads).

The development of the Buran began in the early 1970s as a response to the U.S. Space Shuttle program. Soviet officials were concerned about a perceived military threat posed by the U.S. Space Shuttle. In their opinion, the Shuttle's 30-ton payload-to-orbit capacity and, more significantly, its 15-ton payload return capacity, were a clear indication that one of its main objectives would be to place massive experimental laser weapons into orbit that could destroy enemy missiles from a distance of several thousands of kilometers. Their reasoning was that such weapons could only be effectively tested in actual space conditions and that to cut their development time and save costs it would be necessary to regularly bring them back to Earth for modifications and fine-tuning.[7] Soviet officials were also concerned that the U.S. Space Shuttle could make a sudden dive into the atmosphere to drop bombs on Moscow.[8]

The book Energiya-Buran; the Soviet Space Shuttle (by Hendrickx and Vis) mostly concurs, and adds that the Soviets reasoned, "we don't know what the Shuttle is really intended for but the Americans must be up to something, so let's replicate the Shuttle's abilities just to be on the safe side.


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