I would like to know if the Space Shuttle orbiters would have been capable of utilizing the Energia Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) used by the Buran instead of the External tank/SRB configuration. And if so, could the HLLV have been modified to use a parachute recovery system or to utilize the DCX/Clipper Graham tested vertical rocket landing method now, being used by Space X with their Falcon 9 booster?

This architecture would have at least prevented orbiter loss from insulation breaking off and damaging the tiles. Of course this would have required a steep learning curve for NASA, as well as flight testing the new system, however it would have at least preserved the orbiters as a viable delivery and space operations and maintenance platform for several more decades, until a truly reusable SSTO/TSTO system could be developed.

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    $\begingroup$ What you're calling "Buran HLV" is more properly the Energiya launcher. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energia $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Sep 18 '18 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Even if it was physically possible, it was politically impossible, so there is really no point in speculating about it. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Sep 18 '18 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbes - according to book by B. Gubanov (chief designer of Energia rockets) there was considered even "airplane-like" landing of boosters and main core. You can see couple of cool pictures here: buran.ru/htm/gubanov3.htm. The site www.buran.ru has a lot of puctures and info, but its English version is more scarce, unfortunately. $\endgroup$ – Heopps Sep 18 '18 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh thanks for that link. Nice concise summary. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Sep 25 '18 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble ya that just turned up in an unlikely search which I don't remember now. I haven't read it in detail, but it looks like it has some good history. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 25 '18 at 14:09

While superficially the Shuttle and Buran look similar and there are strong arguments that like the Concorde and Tu-160 that the design was 'liberated' and modified.

There are some major differences. The 2 SRB's vs 4 Zenit side cores is not an issue. But there Buran has no main engines, rather they are on the base of the main core, which is really the main part of the Energia system.

The Space Shuttle has three main engines that are fueled entirely by the External Tank. So you would probably want to remove and cover over the SSME's to save on mass. But that would throw off the balance of the vehicle a great deal. They are not huge, but they are dense and weigh enough to matter.

You suggest perhaps parachute landing or vertical landing, I assume in the context of the Shuttle orbiter itself. That would be a complete and total redesign and not look anything at all in any way to the Shuttle.

Could you design a reusable vehicle to use the Energia booster? Of course you could, but modifying an existing design would probably not be helpful.

On the other hand, internal systems, like the life support system, airlocks, Canada Arm, even OMS engines could be used as existing designs to help such a design.

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    $\begingroup$ I think OP is talking about parachute recovery for the Energiya component, not the orbiter. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Sep 18 '18 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the question is about HLLV recovery, not the Buran, which is a space plane, with wings and wheels, and can land already. I've followed up on RB's comment above and made a clarifying edit. youtube.com/watch?v=v8Ofss2TVuU $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 19 '18 at 6:34

The Energia booster used liquid propellant for the boosters, eliminating one possible point of failure (the SRBs). But the Energia core used cryogenic propellants, so the failure mode that destoyed Columbia (ice from the tank striking the heat shield) still exists.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks to all for your answers and information. My original question was to long and required trimming. The gist of which was to have a modification of an Energia (HLLV) like booster. The second part of my question concerned whether the very early external tanks were white. This made wonder if that paint or other material would have prevented insulation from breaking or damaging tiles. I believe the that NASA discontinued it due to cost savings.And again my thanks for helping out on my first question. Best of luck in your future endeavours. $\endgroup$ – templerman Sep 19 '18 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ The white paint on the External Tank is addressed here: space.stackexchange.com/questions/2449/… $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Sep 20 '18 at 7:20

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