Remains of forgotten Soviet space shuttle photographed by urban explorer

Alec Luhn
An urban explorer admires the last remaining Soviet space shuttle in a hangar at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan - Andrei Ghilan / mediadrumimages.

In a dusty hangar on the steppes of Kazakhstan, one of the last remnants of the Cold War space race, the Soviet space shuttle, lies forgotten.

The cosmos was a field of fierce competition for the United States and USSR, which constantly sought to one-up each other with new technological breakthroughs and pioneering missions. 

Part of that rivalry is still hidden away at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the starting point for Soviet and Russian space flights before the new Vostochny cosmodrome was built.

The first Soviet space shuttle, which made just one unmanned flight, was destroyed in 2002 when the hangar housing it collapsed, but a second shuttle and test mockup are still intact as if frozen in time, the proud achievement of a country that no longer exists.

“A steel bird, born to fly among the stars, has been left trapped in a concrete cage,” Andrei Ghilan, a journalist and urban explorer from Moldova, wrote after photographing the space shuttle in its lonely hangar last month. “Engineers and scientists solved a million problems to lift it into the sky. Now nobody needs the product of their intellect.”

The cockpit of the shuttle Credit: mediadrumimages/Andrei Ghilan

The Soviet shuttle programme began in 1976 after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev learned that the United States was building the first winged, reusable space shuttle and declared the USSR must have its own.

Military chiefs reportedly viewed the US craft as a military technology, calling it a “space bomber”.

The shuttle along with a test model Credit: Andrei Ghilan/mediadrumimages

When the Soviet shuttle, called the Buran, or “snowstorm,” finally appeared, it looked remarkably similar to its American counterpart, and for good reason: It was built on the basis of US plans gathered by the KGB.

Since Nasa's space shuttle programme wasn't classified, the Soviet Union obtained documents on almost all design aspects from US government databases as it built the Buran. 

A ruined hangar at Baikonur Credit: Andrei Ghilan/mediadrumimages

But the United States was still far ahead when it launched the first space shuttle in 1981. Seven years later, the USSR finally launched the Buran on an unmanned flight, sending it into orbit and landing it remotely. 

But the maiden voyage of the Soviet shuttle was also to be its swan song. After the USSR broke up in 1991, the design bureau that had made the Buran resisted reforms and was not included in the new Russian federal space agency, effectively ending the programme before it had ever really gotten off the ground. 

A hatch in the side of the shuttle Credit: Andrei Ghilan/mediadrumimages

The second Soviet space shuttle, known as the “Burya” or “Ptichka,” was left orphaned at the Baikonur cosmodrome, with only pigeons and a test model to keep it company, until it was rediscovered in 2015. 

Meanwhile, a different test model became a tourist attraction in Moscow, sitting on display at Gorky Park for two decades before being moved to the VDNKh park. 

Another test model is located at a technology museum in Speyer, Germany.