Russia's Secret Space Shuttle in a Kazakhstan Desert

In 1974, Russia launched its largest, most expensive project in space exploration history in response to NASA's space shuttle program. The Soviets’ Buran program lasted nearly two decades (from 1974 to 1993), and only one automated orbital flight had been completed before the whole project was canceled due to lack of funding when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Space Shuttle in a Kazakhstan Desert Kazakhstan 

The Molniya Research Industrial Corporation, which developed the Buran's body, said the goal was to send 30 tons to space and return 20 tons to Earth.

Buran was supposed to hold up to six passengers in its crew cabin. A separate cargo department would allow for satellites up to 17 meters (56 feet) long and 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter. Additional crew members could ride in the cargo area.

Similarly to NASA's space shuttle, Buran would have different kinds of thermal materials on its surface to shield from the stresses of re-entry. Buran performed 24 test flights on Earth (including 15 that were fully automatic) in preparation for its space test flight

It's hard to pin a number on just how much the Soviets invested, but reports estimate that anywhere from tens of millions to billions were spent on the project. The sites where the shuttles were laid to rest have since been completely abandoned.

Buran would be the only Soviet orbiter to leave Earth. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin canceled the program entirely, leaving some vessels to rot in a hangar while others were put on display in such places as the Sydney Summer Olympics and Moscow’s Gorky Park.

Space Shuttle in a Kazakhstan Desert Space Shuttle

Buran, the shuttle that actually flew, was destroyed in 2002 when its hangar collapsed after an earthquake, killing eight people. Ptichka and this other test shuttle remain at Baikonur, beckoning those who enjoy visiting moldering relics of the Cold War and yesterday’s quests to send humans to space.

Ralph Mirebs, an urban explorer and photographer in Russia, has revealed extraordinary photos of Soviet space shuttle prototypes gathering dust in an abandoned hangar in Kazakhstan. Mirebs’ photos show this forgotten space program derelict and frozen in time. Hopefully, his photos will inspire the Russian government to put these shuttles in a museum where they belong.

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