Like something out of a post-apocalyptic film, Russian photographer and urban explorer Ralph Mirebs has uncovered a gem in the deserts of Kazakhstan. Deep within an abandoned hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome sit several ex-soviet spacecrafts, long-forgotten, alone, and silently turning to dust.
Hard as it is to imagine, the Cosmodrome was once a thriving launch complex – the very same that saw Earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, take to the skies. The rocket that lifted Yuri Gagarin, the first human in orbit, was also launched from Baikonur.
“History spirals,” reflects Mirebs, who has dedicated much of his photographic career to documenting the industrial decline that followed the Cold War. “This is an objective process, repeated over and over again. You can regret for lost time and mourn the past greatness, but the facts remain through the ages.” It is these “breadcrumbs of greatness” that inspire Mirbebs to continue his work. “There’s an easy irony in that the birthplace of [Russia’s] cosmic expanses, would be its burial place and crypt.”
The shuttles (OK-1K2, OK-1K1, and OK-MT) all spawn from the 1974 Buran Program, which aimed to match NASA’s early success with the American Reusable Orbiter. Inside and out, these spacecrafts resembled their American counterparts – so well in fact, that many thought them to be exact replicas. It seemed likely that NASA’s plans had been leaked, but evidence from journals and work logs suggests that soviet engineers designed most of these mechanisms from scratch, with only a general knowledge of how the American ships worked. And in some ways, they did it better.
Both ships relied on hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity and burned hydrazine to power on-board hydraulic systems, but the Soviet engineers built an entirely new launch system for Buran. “Instead of two relatively simple (but, as it turned out after the Challenger disaster, deadly unreliable) solid-rocket boosters, on the first stage, the Soviets employed four liquid-propellant rockets,” explains Anatoly Zak, editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com. “They also placed these engines into a separate rocket stage, rather than on the winged orbiter itself.”
The autonomous OK-1K1 could carry a cargo load of 95 tons, which dwarfed the 25-ton limit of the U.S. Space Shuttle. But in the end, being a heavy-lifter just wasn’t enough to win the space race. Buran’s maiden ship made just a single, unmanned flight before a lack of funding saw the program suspended, and then finally shut down in 1993.
Things only went downhill from there; the roof of the “MIK” building, where the shuttles were originally stored, collapsed in 2002, destroying OK-1K1 and killing eight people. Following the disaster, her sister ships were moved to the explosion-resistant hangar we see here.
“[The sight] is just magnificent,” says Mirebs. “They had to perform all kinds of work at different heights, but it was crucial that they didn’t touch the heat shield plates.” The cavernous hall is still lined with ghost platforms and hydraulic lifts, used by engineers past for decades. “[The shuttles] are still sitting in the transport units,” he says. “You can imagine their towering noses moving along those recessed rails in the floor.” You can hear it.
The fate of the Buran ships remains to be seen, but we’re certainly glad Mirebs was willing to share this piece of history with the world. His work is an homage to an ambitious time in soviet space exploration, one which some argue, we may never see again. “[In Russia], the romance of space is gone,” he says.
IMAGES: Copyright Ralph Mirebs