Just a little story

Attempts to store the last Soviet space shuttle in a Russian museum have caused an international row.

The Buran, or Snowstorm, was a response to the American shuttle programme but was shelved after a single unmanned test flight in 1988.

The Americans used aluminium lithium (sorry, aluminum lithium) alloys in the Shuttle. Indeed, much of the development of those alloys stemmed from that program.

As I understand it – I am no engineer – this is about grain refinement. Other alloys use zirconium to do this – again, as I understand it, trying to get the atoms into a more ordered state, even if not into a crystal type order which gains strength etc – and the Al Li use both Li and Zr.


The Russians, facing the same technical problems, went after Al scandium alloys. Or, in fact, Al Zr Sc ones. This being better from the engineering point of view. Also a disaster from the cost one. Sc was an interesting and trivially important rare earth. No one used it for nowt. So, the entire supply chain had to be built for the one shuttle program.

This is the result of the Soviet misconception of economics. They assumed that since all value was created by labour then if people were set to labour then value was being created. They really did think this way too. Factories would be set up 2,000 km away from each other, one supplying parts to the other. Since people had to labour to transport components then value was being created, right?

So, uranium being extracted by the Caspian had some Sc in it (not unusual), a plant was built to extract it, 20 tonnes of Sc2O3 a year could be produced.

At market prices today the Li is maybe $20 a lb (as metal, what is used to make Al Li) and the Sc $1500 (metal content of oxide, what is used to make Al Sc) and there are a few applications where Sc is worth that cost. Building space shuttles ain’t one of ’em. The bits that went wrong on the US one weren’t about these alloys – not at all in fact. It was the bits that didn’t use them that did go wrong. To the point that I’ve had discussions with NASA about the next generation – the one that came to a screeching halt when the second bang happened. Seriously, on the Friday they were telling me they’d have a purchase order on the Monday for some test material, on Sunday the bang, program cancelled – about those tiles being made of these sorts of alloys instead.

As and when Berlin Wall etc this left the Soviets well ahead in the supply and understanding of Sc. Thus the lighting industry buying from there, Elon Musk asking me about Sc in Al (still the only email I’ve ever had from him) and Airbus building a wing out of Russian material and so on and on.

The world’s Sc industry was Russian because of this Buran shuttle. Fun, eh?

16 thoughts on “Just a little story”

  1. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    When the Germany Province of North Korea comes to its senses, you will be able to go to the technology museum at Speyer and walk into a Buran shuttle.*

    The sister museum at Sinsheim goes one better and has both a Concorde and the Russian knock-off on display, and you can walk around them.

    * This assumes that the green parties (including CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, and left party as well as the official green party) have not banned cars and made the electricity supply less reliable.

  2. Har Har. You make one, spray it with acid, freeze it, heat it, bounce up and down on it, to check the deterioration of the alloy. For 20 years so far….

  3. BiNK. Cool. If I ever go to Germany again, I’ll have to remember to have a look at it.

    By the way, I understood that Germany had a nice reliable electricity supply because it burned lots and lots of nice dirty brown coal. Instead of using those horrid nukes of course.

  4. I thought the only completed Buran was crushed when its hangar collapsed a few years ago. Was it restored, or were there others?

  5. So the Buran was the flap of the butterfly’s wing? Still, the response couldn’t be a tornado because ga-ga Joe says people don’t use the word anymore.

  6. Wasn’t the problem with the second shuttle ( in fact all of them) the the tiles used to fall off in flight ?
    Now if they had used Evo Stik instead of Pritt…

    ps I went to the Leningrad space museum in the 80s, it was ace. Is it still there, does anyone know ?

  7. The Americans used aluminium lithium (sorry, aluminum lithium) alloys in the Shuttle.

    The IUPAC have regularised the spelling as ‘aluminium’, so septics are going to have to learn to spell it correctly (they’re also trying to get them to pronounce nuclear in a manner different from that of a 5-year-old, but that’s a lost cause). In revenge, we now have to spell ‘sulfur’ wrong.

  8. I naturally still spell it sulphur.

    And since they insist on Muslim instead of Moslem, I’ve decided to go back to good old Mahometan.

    Of course as someone or other once said, they only do it to annoy because they know it teases.

  9. The issue that the Shuttle had was that the insulating foam that was sprayed onto the external tanks often came away during the launch phase, dislodging or damaging the insulating tiles.
    Tends to be a problem if you’re doing 30,000mph.

  10. “The only one that flew was crushed……always more than one in a development program tho’”

    I knew there were others, but I was under the impression they were even less like the flight article than Enterprise was.

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