There’s a lot of talk these days about how we’re going to get humans and equipment to Mars, but it’s just talk. In the meantime, we’re still looking for ways to replace the space shuttles which transported astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station for 30 years. While SpaceX has made a few trips with its Dragon, the workhorse continues to be the Russian Soyuz spacecraft which has been around since 1967 and the days of the Soviet Union. Whatever happened to Russia’s own space shuttle program?
Photographer Ralph Mirebs was given the unprecedented opportunity to visit a mysterious hangar near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan where the remains of two prototype shuttles, as well as the remains of the Soviet space shuttle program itself, sit abandoned. The main Buran shuttle (OK-1K1) made one test flight in 1988 before it and the rest were scrapped. OK-1K1 was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002. The nearly-completed but never tested Burya and OK-MT are the ones Mirebs photographed.
The shuttles, which look remarkably like the U.S. space shuttles (because of suspected stolen plans), are covered in dirt, dust and bird droppings. Mirebs was able to photograph inside the cockpits which still contained instruments and displays, as well as inside the cargo bays which were clean from being closed up.
The hangar building itself is the largest at the Baikonur Cosmodrome complex and was built with reinforced steel to withstand possible explosions from both inside and out. As a result, the building fared better than the Buran program, as Mirebs saw when he took photographs from platforms high above the shuttles.
So what killed the Soviet shuttle program? Money problems caused by the demise of the Soviet Union. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin officially ended it on June 30, 1993. In addition to the two shuttles Mirebs saw and the one destroyed, five others were in some stage of production. Some were dismantled for parts and tests and one is on display in a museum.
The abandoned building and shuttles are a sad testimony to the so-called “space race.” With the state of space programs today, there were no true winners. In endeavors of this magnitude, cooperation – not competition – may be the key to successfully getting humans to Mars and beyond.