The Khimki Reservoir, on a tributary of the Moscow River, is frozen. An elderly couple is tugged across the icy surface by eager grandchildren, while nearby on a desolate snow-covered football pitch, a pair of dishevelled alcoholics glower menacingly at passers-by. Behind them, a corrugated iron fence delineates an open-air yard. Inside, with missing wings, and its exterior thermal tiles stripped to reveal a green skin faded and battered by the elements, the Buran space shuttle – ‘snowstorm’ in Russian – has sat for the past seven years. By contrast, the orbiter for the US Space Shuttle Enterprise sits on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
How did this once bold statement of Soviet strength, a proud explorer destined for outer space find itself here, left to decay? In the mid-1970s the Soviet leadership signed off the Mir space station and Energia rocket programme as the focus of its space ambitions. When the Americans launched the Space Shuttle Columbia with 37 orbits of the Earth in 1981, Russia began to covet the innovation of combining a rocket launch with a spacecraft that re-entered in its entirety. Columbia was in fact a compromise for NASA, who had hoped to follow the Apollo missions with a manned flight to Mars but failed to achieve political support.
Sold on the concept of a re-usable craft, the Soviets designed a response around the US model, using Energia rocket technology to propel the ship into orbit. Five working craft were constructed in addition to eight full-size prototype models, yet the Buran’s only ever completed mission consisted of two Earth orbits on 15 December 1988. As an encore, Buran appeared at the 1989 Paris Air Show atop the An-225, at 84m long and 88.4m in wingspan, the world’s largest cargo aircraft. For the space programme, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the final death knell, as its funding had slowly been reduced throughout the 1980s.
The redundant Burans now remain scattered around the country. Originally they were manufactured less than a kilometre away from the Khimki pier, at the NPO Energia factory. Transporting them, however, was not easy. Each Buran is the height of a five-storey building and has a wingspan of 23.92m. The street between the production line and the pier was widened specially to accommodate the wingspan. A barge ferried the spacecraft to the Zhukovsky airfield, 40km southeast of Moscow and from there, the shuttle would be mounted on the An-225 and then flown to the Soviet Cosmodrome at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
The husk of the shuttle that stands at the Khimki pier was on the factory floor when funding for the project evaporated, and remained there until moved to its current home in 2003 so as to free space in the factory. Speaking a year later, the factory’s deputy general director Mikhail Gofin said that he had been advised to dismantle and melt down the Buran. He had refused. ‘We are categorically against the destruction of the ship, as it is our national heritage. These relics cannot be destroyed,’ he said.
Unfortunately the size and expense of the craft has meant that wherever a Buran has surfaced it has struggled to find a secure home in its motherland (although one model is owned and proudly displayed at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany). In 2002, Buran 1.01, the only fully operational orbiter, was destroyed when the roof of its hangar at Baikonur, buffeted by heavy snow and unmaintained through budget cuts, collapsed, killing seven workers. Other models of the Buran remain exposed to the elements in Baikonur, while back in Moscow one can be found in Gorky Park. Like the Buran at Khimki pier, this ‘snowstorm’ has struggled to withstand the elements.
The Buran by the banks of the Khimki might seem emblematic of Russia’s emergence from the Soviet era, but one should be wary of seeing it as a representative of the state of its contemporary space programme. The government has struggled to preserve the Buran as a treasured artefact, but this does not mean that the Russian space programme is dead. Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency is locked into an ongoing contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) and on New Year’s Eve proudly announced that Russia had launched ‘two times more rockets than the USA and China in 2010’. In fact, the Russian Soyuz rocket will soon be the sole means of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS because NASA is due to retire its remaining three Space Shuttles later this year. As the Buran knows only too well: yesterday’s future is tomorrow’s relic.