Ghosts of the USSR: Eerie photographs show Soviet-era space shuttles left to rust in an abandoned desert hangar in Kazakhstan

Originally published in The Daily Mail, 4th May 2017

  • Two test space shuttles found in abandoned Soviet hangar close to the Cosmodrome Baikonur in Kazakhstan
  • The two space craft were developed as part of USSR’s Buran space programme which was shut down in 1993
  • A giant Energia rocket, designed to propel shuttles in to space, is also pictured in the same derelict complex

These eerie photographs show how USSR-era space craft have been left to rust in an abandoned desert hangar in Kazakhstan.

Two test shuttles were found inside a derelict Soviet warehouse near the Cosmodrome Baikonur, 125 miles east of the Aral Sea.

They were both developed as part of Moscow’s Buran programme which was shut down in 1993 – but neither of the craft were sent to space.

In the same building, photographers pictured a vast Energia rocket, designed to propel the Buran, an unmanned space plane, into orbit.

 

The USSR designed the rocket to compete with Nasa’s Saturn V, the super-lift launch vehicle that supported the Apollo mission to the moon.

Alexander Kaunas, from Russia, said he walked 24 miles through the desert to reach the hangar – once a hub of activity but now left derelict – and photograph the unused shuttles and rocket.

Like Nasa’s Space Shuttles, the Buran vehicles had engines located at the back, and two wings for a controlled landing back on Earth.
The Russian model had striking external similarities to the US Space Shuttle Columbia sparking suggestions Cold War espionage may have played a part in its development.

Both US Space Shuttles and Buran had the same shape and size, the same vertical tail structures and even similar colours – white with a black trim.

Documents that emerged in the late 1990s revealed how the KGB stole the designs for the US shuttle in the 1970s and 1980s enabling the Kremlin to build a carbon copy of the American system.

 

A 1985 CIA report said there was ‘espionage by hostile intelligence officers, overt collection, by East Bloc officials, acquisition by scientific exchange program participants and illegal trade-related activity.’

Files from US databases – much of them unclassified – were raided from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, according to the CIA analysis, called ‘Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology’.

The report said: ‘Documents acquired dealt with airframe designs (including the computer programs on design analysis), materials, flight computer systems, and propulsion systems. This information allowed Soviet military industries to save years of scientific research and testing time as well as millions of rubles as they developed their own very similar space shuttle vehicle.’

Similar claims of espionage were made in the 1960s when Russia’s supersonic Tupolev TU-144 passenger jet was unveiled. It closely resembled the British-French Concorde which got off the ground two months later.

Development of the Buran programme began in 1976, with the reusable spacecraft capable of performing operations in orbit before returning to Earth.

But after one unmanned spaceflight of the Orbiter 1K1 in 1988, the scheme was scrapped following the dissolution of the USSR in 1993.

Orbiter 1K1 was crushed and destroyed in the same complex – but in a different hangar – in 2002. The collapse killed eight workers.

The rocket Kaunas pictured was designed by Russia’s top space agency, to act as a heavy-lift launch system and booster for the Buran spaceplane.  It has been left abandoned in the disused hanger since 1991.

The Energia weighs in at a massive 2,400,000kg (5,300,000 lb) depsite being made of super-light metals.

 

The super-strong rocket ship could carry 100 tonnes (100,000kg) – the equivalent of 16 African elephants – into orbit.

Unusually, the Energy carried its considerable payload on its side, rather than on the top.

The giant hangar that houses the rocket was actually an assembly complex and, measuring 433ft (132 metres) long by 203ft (62 metres) in height, it is the largest building at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Huge sliding gates 138 by 118ft (42 by 36 metres) would have allowed the shuttles to have been rolled out to the launchpad nearby.

To protect the shuttles from a possible shockwave if a heavy launch vehicle exploded nearby, the structure was made of reinforced steel.

The room was also intended to be a ‘clean room’ devoid of dust when working on the orbiters, so the doors leading out of the central area could be sealed.

The hangar is located near to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is still used to launch Soyuz rockets today.

 

Kaunas, a film director, was thrilled once he reached the shuttles and spent three nights sleeping inside the abandoned area.

He said: ‘It’s fun to find some places where people can’t get in, it makes my photos unique. We walked about over 24 miles through the dessert with huge bags, until we got to the shuttles.

‘We were walking the whole night, because the area is still secured, and we didn’t want to be seen during the day on route. When we came into the hangar, it was so dark, I couldn’t find the shuttles using my flashlight.

‘I thought I’d got the wrong building, but suddenly my spotlight caught the wing of Buran. My first thought, when I glance on it was, “that’s huge.”‘

Kaunas has explored other space rocket facilities and warns how sleeping in such buildings can be difficult.

He added: ‘Despite being alone here, we did not feel that way. We didn’t speak much and only whisper if needed.

‘We spent three nights on the cosmodrome, and every night we couldn’t sleep as every sound of birds or wind woke me up. It felt like sleeping in a house with a ghost, the ghost of USSR.’

 

VIDEO: Adventurers discover abandoned space shuttles in the Kazakh desert