An illicit visit to two abandoned Soviet space shuttles


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An evening pause: Hat tip John Harman. This video has been around for awhile, but I hadn’t ever actually watched it until now. What it shows is very cool, but sad in so many ways. As a government project the whole Soviet space shuttle program was generally a dead end waste of resources (as was our own shuttle). Yet, it was possibly one of Soviet Russia’s greatest technological achievements — which they have allowed to rot away in these abandoned hangers, rather than opening them up for their citizens to see and admire and learn from.

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23 comments

  • ken anthony

    I’m surprised scrappers haven’t cleaned the place out more than it is?

  • Calvin G Dodge

    Minor nit: the word is “illicit”.

  • The Russians should take pride in their work, clean the shuttles, transport them, and display them for tourists to see. What good do they serve where they are?

  • mpthompson

    Do the Russians not have an equivalent to the Smithsonian? If not, it’s a terrible shame.

  • Localfluff

    You make a very very wrong assumption about the Buran/Energia/Zenit launcher(s), calling it a dead end. It was very much better designed than the Shuttle. I would definitely not call it a wasted project. It launched the anti-anti-ICBM satellite satellite Polyus, the largest payload ever launched to orbit, more massive than Skylab. It was a demonstration of power and military technological capability beyond what any other county could achieve. A torpedo in Reagan’s SDI plan. The last hope of the Soviet Union and a very serious challenge. With a smarter leader than Gorby they would still be in power thanks to the Buran/Energia dominating cold war space and still would 30+ years later until the BFR or Big Blue Origin launcher flies.

    Buran/Energia/Zenit is very much safer than the shuttle, very much cheaper, simply because it is smarter designed. It is modular. Energia is the SLS from the beginning. Zenit (the boosters) are individual medium lift launchers in themselves. In the early 1990s NASA should’ve scrapped the STS shuttle thing and used the superior Russian technology instead. That would’ve saved at least a quarter of NASA’s budget, and seven astronauts’ lives.

    By simple blunder, the shuttle lacked these very obvious and valuable design features:

    – Fly only the Zenit (for money like today)
    – Fly Energia without Buran (to orbit the heaviest payload ever)
    – Fly Energia with Buran but uncrewed (to collect a satellite to Earth).
    – Fly Energia with any number of crew from 1 to 7. With ejection seats for 2.

  • Localfluff

    Reminds me of Ayn Rand’s (in Atlas Shrugged) discovery of the engine that moves the world, neglected and forgotten by a socialist society in severe decay.

  • wayne

    ken–
    no doubt! Any other place on earth, that whole facility would have been picked clean years ago.

    mpthompson-
    well, they were totalitarian Marxist/Leninist’s for 70 years, now they are a gangster-oligarchy run by ex-KGB. They have little use for Museum’s.
    ———————————–

    Jordan Peterson
    -thoughts on “The Gulag Archipelago”
    https://youtu.be/GfEYKSxXC5o
    7:30

  • Edward

    Localfluff,
    We have discussed this before. Buran failed to demonstrate that it could fly a second time. It didn’t even demonstrate that it could fly manned.
    As you may have noticed, there are two more Russian shuttles that still have not flown, suggesting that flying the first time was not a good idea.

    Modular design is not necessarily superior; it may require undesirable tradeoffs. A mobile home may be modular, and the Sears Tower is not, but that does not make the mobile home superior to the Sears Tower.

  • Matt in AZ

    Here’s a recent video that does a nice job of summarizing the Soviet shuttle program, showcasing its pros and cons vs the the American shuttle system. (About 10 minutes long)

    Did The Soviets Build A Better Space Shuttle? The Buran Story:
    https://youtu.be/CwLx4L5NRU0

  • pzatchok

    The Russian Shuttle failed for exsactly the same reason the US shuttle did.
    Neither was economicaly viable. It doesn’t matter who had the better one neither had a job to do.

    Asking America to buy the Russian shuttle and thus finance the Russian space program was not a solution to keeping it flying. At the time we would never have done it because of politics. Now we don’t need it and soon we will not need Russia at all fir manned flights.

    In the end the shuttle was never needed for anything. The fact that Russia spent billions on building theirs and only flying it once ended up being a great way to sink the Russian space industry just like the American one. In fact it hurt it even more. Russia had less capital to waste.
    They have only survivied because they smartly kept their working programs running and just gently upgraded them as technology became cheap and available. They stopped trying to make great technological leaps like America and concentrated on what they had that worked.
    They stayed in space in the cheap(never at a profit) but now that the American Government is not making huge investments in great leaps of tech,(thus something to copy) American private companies are working to fill the gap at a profit. The Russians are now falling behind the private companies and soon will be reduced to just their military financing the launch industry. And if they do not want to be a world power even that funding will dry up. Russia has 10 years to make a profit.

  • Edward

    I am appalled at the treatment that these guys had for these craft. Without knowing what damage they may cause, they walked on surfaces that hadn’t been intended to support that activity. That is exactly why there are guards all over that area. I do not want those guys inside the museum where I volunteer.

    Matt in AZ,
    Thanks for the video.

    Of course, if we had talked about STS — after only one manned, two-day flight and no attempt at refurbishing it for a second flight — the way that the video talks about Buran, even Localfluff would have had to conclude that the STS was vastly superior.

    However, we did not yet know the full extent of the Shuttle’s cost and lack of ability to fly every other week. With Buran, we will never know the full extent of its abilities or its operational cost; all we know was that it flew once, unmanned, for a whopping two orbits and was too expensive to fly a second time.

    To expand on Robert’s statement that the US and Russian shuttle programs were generally dead end wastes of resources:

    Rather than getting 25-ish annual Shuttle flights for a $3 billion annual expenditure, we only got 5-ish flights. Instead of being the nation’s satellite launch system, it almost killed our ability to launch satellites. The Shuttle did not make the US the runaway leader in space but hampered our development of space. (Sure, we got a lot of experimentation and experience from operating the Shuttle, but not nearly as much as we had expected.)

    The Russians, on the other hand, got virtually nothing for their expenditure on Buran.

  • Localfluff

    Edward,
    Yes, I’ve tried to explain Buran’s total superiority ,the best spacecraft ever designed, to you before. But you seem to be a bit hard of hearing somewhere. 30 years ago the bloody Soviet communists had a fully operational space launch system that included the shuttle, the SLS, the Atlas V (i.e. Zenit). At a peanut budget. And it was much superior in capabilities. It launched the most massive payload human kind has ever launched to orbit, perfectly flawlessly. The Buran shuttle flew equally perfectly flawlessly on its very first try, and without a crew, something which NASA hadn’t competence to accomplish (but instead routinely killed 7 astronauts at a time every time anything went wrong).

    The Soviet economy crashing was completely unrelated to the superior design of the Energia/Buran/Zenit system. Do you use your own logic to claim that Wernher von Braun knew nothing about rocket science because Germany was defeated?

    That Soviet rocket scientists, on a shoestring budget, could design a launch systems so very much superior to those of the Americans, in cost, capabilities and general brilliance (modularity was just a side bonus), is a very very bad rating for NASA and the corrupt ineffective military industrial complex. Maybe that’s a big reason for why billionaires get into the launcher business today, they have historic evidence that it is extremely easy for a new competitor to beat the lame clowns that make up today’s rocket business. They are even worse than the communists, by a factor of ten!

  • Localfluff

    pzatchok,
    Why is the USAF flying the X-37B if an uncrewed shuttle that can service and take home satellites has no applications? And bet that even the little X-37B cost many many times more than the combined Saturn V, Atlas V and Shuttle system that the Soviet communists operated 30 years ago.

    Reagan would’ve have lost his SDI space war if Soviet had made a Chinese reformation of its economy to survive politically (Gobby never had that intention, he was a true communist). Then free Russia in the early 1990s had the best launch system ever made, even to date, available for a bargain. No one was interested. What a horrible historical failure of diplomacy, business, engineering and space exploration.

  • pzatchok

    Think of the X-37b as a reusable spt satelite.
    Its small enough to be flown on multiple launchers and thus can be placed anyplace anytime its needed for as long as needed.
    Then recovered on almost any major runway if needed and transported inside military cargo craft back to the launchers.
    Refueled and refurbished in a short amount of time.
    I bet it can even be reconfigured for each mission as needed.

    The X-37 is cheap.
    Compaired to the Shuttle and Buran VERY cheap. The Shuttle and Buran cost a billion or so a launch and took a year of turn around time. 30 years ago. That 1 billion would be 4 billion now.
    The X-37 is being launched on cheap known rockets for WAY less than a quarter that cost now. Possibly 250 million for a Space-X ride.

    The X-37 is not a service ship. And sadly the origional Space Shuttle and Buran were NOT designed to be satelite service stations. Satelites were not designed to be serviced at the time. As for launching satelites they could have just used a regular rocket to launch the same anount cheaper.
    The US shuttle was origionaly designed to recover one satelite. The Hexagon. The US space shuttle was sized exactly for the Hexagon.
    What spy satelite was the Buran designed to recover? None as far as I know, so was it really even built for any reason other than propaganda?

    And I am sorry, but you have your cost estimations off a bit. granted things were cheaper back then in the old Soviet Union, that was because of their controled socialist system. If you convert each cost into man hours per launcher and its first launch, the US was man hours cheaper. And were it was not man hour cheaper it was materialy better.

    The X-37 does exactly what it was designed to do and does it economicaly and efficiently.

  • pzatchok

    The Soviet engineers had an easy task.
    They knew the Buran was nothing more than propaganda so they used the chance to design and build the energya launcher to be their heavy lift rocket system and the Buran shuttle was just a strap on propaganda prop.

    If it really was more economical both the Soviet Union and Russian Federation would have used it. the Chinese would have at least rented it.

    If it was anything more than propaganda don’t you think the Chinese would have made and used a version of their own? But yet they have not even tried anything close and their tech is way ahead of anything either of us had back then.

    Everything the US shuttle did after its first flight was make work and propaganda itself.I am not even sure if it ever was actually used to launch or recover the Hexagon that it was designed to work with.

  • ken anthony

    I can’t buy the pure propaganda theory. You can get a lot more value in propaganda if the money were just spent for that purpose. The American shuttle was a machine designed by political committees and made very little engineering sense. The Buran gave them heavy lift and that alone makes it superior.

    The original concept of the American shuttle was very similar to the BFR with similar objectives. When it was downsized it lost all of its intended benefits.

    Remember the Mig that landed in Japan? Although primitive to American jets it actually had some good cost saving features. Russian engineers are as good as any, they had to make due with less funding and they did it.

    Govt just isn’t a good match with making real progress. Profit works best, but not if that’s the only focus. If BFR is successful, humanity will move to the next age.

  • Edward

    I agree that Buran is an important part of space history, and I wish the first three had been better preserved and displayed, but I remain unconvinced that Buran was superior, and it is unlikely that any superiority will ever be demonstrated.

    Energia, however, has been used on two occasions, showing that it had some value, but not enough to remain operational. Or to be revived.

    Localfluff wrote: “But you seem to be a bit hard of hearing somewhere.

    It may be the tinnitus, except for the part where we read, not hear, each other’s words. I have explained that Buran demonstrated very little performance, so your enthusiasm is based solely upon the same type of enthusiasm that we had after the first STS flight. With the STS we anticipated a space station, return to the Moon, and even Mars in the near future. Routine trips to space definitely were in the future, and that is what STS brought. Buran did not. Buran brought a total of two orbits, unmanned — a disadvantage, not an advantage.

    Whether Buran actually had superior capabilities or was only intended to have them will forever remain a mystery. Perhaps it is you who are hard of … reading(?) … understanding(?) … whatever.

    By the way, NASA has flown several satellites and interplanetary probes without crews, so that argument of yours falls a little short. Flying the STS without a crew makes little sense, as it would pass up some of the main purposes of the Shuttle (e.g. science and manned operational experience in space).

    Your arguments fail to be compelling.

    Also working against your enthusiasm is the part where Russia did not choose to use Buran to launch its ISS modules into space. If it had been superior, it would have been the choice. Getting it operational again would have been the right thing to do. Using it to help in supplying ISS with people, supplies, experiments, and other materiel would have been the correct choice. There may be a good reason why no one was interested in the “bargain” that you think Buran was: it may not have been a bargain.

    History has shown us that for an expenditure of the equivalent of billions of dollars, Buran was one and done.

    You asked: “Do you use your own logic to claim that Wernher von Braun knew nothing about rocket science because Germany was defeated?

    My logic shows that von Braun made a successful Moon rocket, despite the defeat of Germany, and that many of von Braun’s V2 rockets flew after the defeat of Germany.

    You seem to have made my point for me. Had Buran been so superior, Russia, too, would have employed it, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, just as von Braun’s V2 was employed.

    Maybe that’s a big reason for why billionaires get into the launcher business today, they have historic evidence that it is extremely easy for a new competitor to beat the lame clowns that make up today’s rocket business.

    Except for that part where the early companies failed left and right. In fact, it was a NASA contract that gave Kisler any hope of success and led to SpaceX’s success. Musk has admitted that he thought SpaceX didn’t have enough commercial customers to keep the company operating long enough to attract more paying customers and that the NASA contract provided incentive for investors to come and keep the company going long enough to become operational.

    It was not easy to compete against the government, and it still is not. Otherwise Bigelow would already have a space habitat on orbit that is supplied by Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, and if it were so easy it would not take a billionaire to compete in space.

    NASA and the Air Force’s contractors may be worse than the communists, but I have not seen many independent space companies in communist countries. I would suggest that it is more than 10 to 1 in favor of capitalist countries.

    ken anthony,
    Buran could not lift much more than the Shuttle, and we do not know what the cost would have been for a second flight. We do know that they had tile problems, just like the Shuttle did. The extra ton of capacity of Buran may not have been worth the cost.

  • Localfluff

    @Edwards
    “Whether Buran actually had superior capabilities or was only intended to have them will forever remain a mystery.”
    Well, it launched the largest payload ever launched to space and its boosters are still competing with SpaceX. And that on its first and only attempt. And it didn’t cost a billion dollar to launch it, Soviet didn’t even own that many monies. They only produced junk and garbage, but their space junk and garbage was superior to that of the Americans in the 1980s.

    The US space-industrial complex is the only part of the industry of the Western world that was inferior to Soviet communism! That is a very very dangerous warning. You might feel secure in spite of this extreme incompetence, disorganization and corruption, but that feeling will easily kill you. You’re much worse than primitive Soviet Russia! And happy with it! Ha ha ha!

  • Edward

    Localfluff,
    You wrote: “Well, it launched the largest payload ever launched to space and its boosters are still competing with SpaceX.

    Buran did not launch the largest payload, Energia did. Buran launched without a payload in its cargo bay.

    The boosters competing with SpaceX does not mean that Buran had any capabilities at all.

    They only produced junk and garbage, but their space junk and garbage was superior to that of the Americans in the 1980s.

    What Soviet “junk and garbage” was superior to the US GPS satellites?

    The US space-industrial complex is the only part of the industry of the Western world that was inferior to Soviet communism!

    Maybe, but the US space-industrial complex is not having the same quality problems that the Russians are now having, and Soviet communism was not confident enough in its Buran to put people on board or to orbit it more than two orbits.

    That is a very very dangerous warning.

    I might have worried about that dangerous warning if the Soviet communism hadn’t fallen, lo those three decades ago. Even communist China and socialist India have moved in the direction of free market capitalism, and now they have more wealthy people and fewer impoverished people than during their communist/socialist economic days.

    It appears that you have a pro-Soviet and anti-US bias, which I will take into account when reading your future comments.

  • pzatchok

    i think the Russians have made and designed many wonderful things.

    The AK-47 for one. Sadly of the two that I own one is Chines and the other Romanian.
    I find it was a wonderfully designed weapon. As long as its used for exactly what it was designed for. Neither will ever be a sniper weapon. Past 300 meters and hitting a man sized target is not guaranteed. But neither will ever stop working no matter how badly I treat them. Though they are cared for very well,why not take care of them?

    I would never buy a Soviet car though.
    But I would buy an IMZ-Ural motorcycle.

    Its not like I dislike everything Soviet and Russian, but if something lasts 50 years it has to be pretty good.

  • Localfluff

    @Edwards,

    “It appears that you have a pro-Soviet and anti-US bias, which I will take into account when reading your future comments.”

    I’m pro-freedom and anti-communism. Everything with a US label on it is not freedom. You should be careful to not just accept any label, without caring about the true substance.

    The US space-industrial complex has been more communist than the Soviet Union was! In Soviet the politicians let the engineers do their thing, because they didn’t understand any of it. In the US politicians meddle with designs because they are corrupt and see ways to take money out of any budget for anything and put it in their own pockets via special interests who just pretend to build rockets.

    Some South African software engineer just wiped out all of the US space-industrial complex with a small startup. Because they’ve had no reason to produce any design for the last 40 years or so. Musk has it right when he goes big big big. I think that was key to the success of the Apollo program. With growing scale, new paradigms emerge. It seems the STS shuttle became such an economic failure because it was downsized. Energia/Zenit/Buran at least had the advantage of modularity, and Zenit is still flying commercially competitive.

  • pzatchok

    I think you have the wrong idea if the “total” US space industrial complex.

    I for one work for a subcontractor to those companies. Our company not only supplies Lockhead and Boeing but also Space-X.

    We would take the Russian contracts also but the Russian government will not let us.

    And Remember that that South African software engineer based everything for his rockets in the US not the Russian federation.
    Why would that be?

  • Edward

    Maybe, someday, the Russians will bring out their remaining Burans to museums so that the rest of us can visit them. I am sure that, as with the Shuttles, they will become centerpieces for attracting many visitors.

    Localfluff,
    You wrote: “I’m pro-freedom and anti-communism. Everything with a US label on it is not freedom. You should be careful to not just accept any label, without caring about the true substance.

    Well, that might have been a believable statement, if you hadn’t already said, “You’re much worse than primitive Soviet Russia! And happy with it! Ha ha ha!” You accepted the Soviet label and failed to care about substance.

    The US space-industrial complex has been more communist than the Soviet Union was!

    Except for, you know, that pesky profit motive, and maybe some other aspects, such as capitalist ownership through publicly traded stocks.

    Robert often compares Apollo and NASA with the Soviet space program, but that does not mean that they were exactly alike. Apollo was top down management, but it still used commercial companies and the ideas from non-government employees to do much of the design work. Congress held the purse strings, and NASA held management responsibility for the overall program, but the contractors worked with NASA, which provided the requirements to meet, just as the contractors work with any commercial customer, providing ideas and solutions of their own while meeting weight, size, power, and other interface requirements.

    In Soviet the politicians let the engineers do their thing, because they didn’t understand any of it.

    Entirely true, except for that central control portion, where the politicians determine how many of what will be made. The politicians told the engineers what to make. Another exception is that the politicians did not tell me what to make, how much to make, or how to make it, but their NASA representatives contracted with the companies I worked for in order to make things that they wanted. I and my fellow engineers got to do our own thing for our companies’ customers, including NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force, but we also worked for other commercial companies, who had their own requirements. Also, unlike Russia, the US has not taken control of the US space industry in order to tell them how to make everything so that the rockets work right.

    I guess there was a lot less ability to do their thing than you suggest, Localfluff.

    Musk has it right when he goes big big big.

    Big is a valid paradigm. There are those who do well by going small, too. For instance, laparoscopy tends to prefer small over large. The US Air Force is beginning to think that a large number of small satellites is more robust than a small number of large satellites that make for a few easy targets.

    Musk started out with the Falcon 1, a small satellite launcher, but he realized that the market still was not there to keep SpaceX in business, not even for the Falcon 5, so he went big in order to compete where the business was. He is now going even bigger in order to boldly go where no man has gone before. So, yes, Musk has it right in order to achieve his goals.

    I think that was key to the success of the Apollo program.

    Well, the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous and Earth Orbit Rendezvous options required smaller rockets than Direct Ascent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iejGJwQieT4 (3 minutes)

    Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was chosen because it was the better choice. Sometimes smaller is better for meeting goals.

    It seems the STS shuttle became such an economic failure because it was downsized.

    Actually, the Space Shuttle started out as a much smaller spacecraft with a science pallet bay where the payload bay turned out to be. It was upsized when the president wanted to kill it and NASA went to the Air Force for support. The Air Force would only support it if there were room for large satellite payloads and if it could launch from Vandenberg, which required large wings in order to have a one-orbit abort back to Vandenberg.

    Had the Shuttle been as small as the original version, it would not have had to have the flawed tiles, because it would not have flexed nearly as much and the larger shuttle. The tiles were needed to compensate for the flexing. Sometimes smaller is better.

    The original Shuttle concept would not have cost nearly so much to launch to orbit or to refurbish, would probably have been able to have been launched the 60 times per year that was originally envisioned, each would not have cost billions of dollars to make, and it would not have been directed to take over the American launch market. It became economic and strategic failures because it was made big. If it had remained the original size with the original purpose, perhaps Robert Truax would have been able to find funding for his proposed commercial launch company, and the launch revolution that is happening now may have happened a quarter century ago.

    Energia/Zenit/Buran at least had the advantage of modularity, and Zenit is still flying commercially competitive.

    We have already discussed that modularity is not necessarily an advantage (modularity didn’t really do that much good for the Russians, since only one modular version still flies — independent of the Energia or the Buran), and you seem to have completely forgotten that the equivalent American NASA Solid Rocket Boosters are selected to fly on SLS. STS has a modularity that you failed to consider. Once again, your pro-Soviet/anti-American bias shows.

    As for commercial use, NASA does not compete with America’s commercial space industry. Government competing with its own private companies would be bad. Russia, on the other hand, took over its commercial space industry, kind of like socialists would do, and now tells their engineers how to do everything.

    But, of course, your bias will not allow you to see the reality of the situation, and you will continue to make your claims. Although this discussion is futile in convincing you that Buran never demonstrated any superiority over the Space Shuttle, it has made me think much more about America’s space program and the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately, we should have been focusing on Buran and what it actually accomplished rather than what it was advertised to accomplish.

    pzatchok asked: “that South African software engineer based everything for his rockets in the US not the Russian federation. Why would that be?

    It was once said that Musk came to America because he could do great things here. He was right, but if he had gone to Russia then his rocket company would have been taken over, a few years ago, with the rest of Russia’s rocket companies.

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