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A quarter-century ago, it seemed like the space shuttle suddenly got a new sibling. On Nov. 15, 1988, the Buran reusable orbiter, the crowning achievement of the Soviet space program, made its first flight. It would prove to be the Buran's last. But looking back 25 years later, some space experts say the USSR might have built a better shuttle, one that would have laid the groundwork for a new generation of launch vehicles, had it been able to weather the economic storms of the 1990s and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Copycat? Once the Soviet winged spacecraft finally made its public debut after years of secret development, an urban myth spread that it was an exact replica of the American space shuttle. It was easy to believe. A long list of Soviet equivalents of Western technology, from vacuum cleaners and cars to aircraft and rockets, were straight-up copies. But while the resemblance between the spacecraft is striking, it turned out to be deceiving. At the outset of the Buran...