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URBEX | Abandoned Soviet Space Shuttles (Buran) in Baikonur

Exploring the Unbeaten Path · Youtube · 162 HN points · 9 HN comments
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Our craziest and most dangerous urbex adventure ever to the abandoned Soviet Space Shuttles in Baikonur ! The Buran project was the most expensive space project in the Russian history. The project stopped in 1993 due the fall of the Soviet Union.

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They didn't just go out and build some. The KGB was stealing NASA's plans. NASA caught on (with help from CIA) and implanted falsified heat tile formulas, which the Soviets copied. Their first Buran only flew once and mostly burned up on reentry due to the bad heat tiles. The Soviets copied most of the design but used their own engine.[1] Then the USSR collapsed. Currently they are sitting in decaying hangars in Baikonur, just rotting away. There's video on youtube of people sneaking in (it's a guarded base), flying drones around them and climbing around in and out of them. It's pretty cool. [2]



My favorite tidbit about the Buran is that it executes a complicated roll maneuver immediately after lift off. You can see the Shuttle do the exact same thing when it launches from Cape Canaveral. The reason is that the lunch pad at the Cape is orientated particular way because it was an upgraded launch pad from the Saturn V, and they couldn’t just rebuild from scratch to meet Shuttle specs. So it rolls after clearing the launch tower to achieve the correct orientation.

The Buran launch pad, by contrast, is able to rotate 360 degrees. They could have just rotated the pad to be correctly aligned before launch. But no, they execute the same complicated, mission-risk-adding roll maneuver verbatim. Exactly like shuttle.

I guarantee you the Buran was running stolen launch sequence code from the Shuttle.

Where are you taking this info from?

Wikipedia makes no mention of that reasoning:

The roll is part of the gravity turn, every craft does that kind of stuff to 'aim'.

So much wrong here. Seems to be a trend on hn this morning.

Food for thought, even if they did steal code, what would that have looked like in the 70s and 80s? Printing out reams of paper? Wheeling in a giant hard disk?

Taking pictures with microfilm.
Yet the Saturn V rolled as well.
Thanks for all the corrections everyone! I trusted the source of this story, but it looks like I should have investigated myself a bit more before repeating. Glad to be corrected!

Here's the Energiya launch site (a sequence of 360° photos, you can look around). What part of it could rotate, in your opinion? Keep in mind the tower is also missing the massive supports and the cosmonaut escape route, a humongous tube slide that couldn't move anywhere.

You might be thinking of the first R-7 launchpads that had to be rotated to a fixed angle before the launch because the control system from 1950's was unable to compute the roll maneuver in flight, aerodynamics being too complex for it.

The Soviets didn't copy most of the design - actually Buran is a completely different design from the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle had a big tank attached to it at the start, but the main engines where part of the Shuttle. Buran was launched by an Energia rocket (which was planned to eventually be reused like Falcon 9) and the main engines were on the rocket, not on the shuttle.

My wife's dad worked at NASA in the 60s, 70s and 80s - he was appointed to be the manager of one of the Apollo missions that was later cancelled. According to him Congress told NASA they'll partially fund the Shuttle program and NASA can ask the Air Force for any extra money required. Air Force involvement ruined the Shuttle, as the military wanted to have options to use the Shuttle for military operations (such as stealing Soviet satellites out of Soviet radar coverage, dropping nuclear bombs from outside any ground defense range and launching the Shuttle from military fields).

The other thing that ruined the Shuttle was NASA was not able to make any real improvements to it. The initial design had a lot of shortcomings and there was never enough funding to improve it.

The buran did some cool things though. It took off, orbited the earth twice, then landed pretty close to target completely remotely. Apparently it only lost like 8 heat tiles on that flight too. Imagine if the program really got going and they were running automated space shuttle missions while the U.S. was still crudely sending people up. That would have been an even bigger a PR disaster for NASA than the shuttle disasters were already.

That is actually impressive. Imagine if Russia kept their sh#t together and continued progressing. They got some things right.
The USSR had no shortage of brilliant technical talent, although they did have a habit of imprisoning them even after they had had a major success.
No shortage, but no surplus either. They just sank a ruinous portion of their GDP into that stuff.
They had like 300 million people population and for a long time were the country training the largest number of engineers every year. So yeah a small percentage of these engineers did turn out to be brilliant.
Fair enough. I'm not saying they were necessarily unique. And they did do a good job of doing horrible things to much of the talent that got to the top.
Its not only the populations size. Technical people were precised as prestigious and well paid. After soviet collapse, this changed causing exodus of talent to west and overall decline in numbers.

Apparently noways a lot of industries are loosing institutional knowledge/expertise built and past down by each generation. because there is no one to pass it down to.

Technical people were never prestigious nor well paid. That was not desired in communism where workers were presented as ruling class. Engineers salary was 110-130 rubles, casual worker ~70 rubles and small caliber boss ~200 rubles. Depending on workplace engineers could steal way less than workers (who had direct access to product) and resourceful bosses.

Edit: a car in comparison was going for 7000 rubles.

I believe (not an expert) that during Stalin times technical people were very well paid. But Khrushchev returned to the policy of leveling (uravnilovka) and tried to make worker and engineer salaries the same.
All of Shuttle launch and most of reentry was automated; the landing itself was always done manually but a fully-automated landing was theoretically possible (the software was there, but it was never fully tested on the real Shuttle).

We "crudely sent people up" with the Shuttle because sending people up with the Shuttle was part of what we wanted to do with the thing. If there had been sufficient demand for fully-unmanned Shuttle missions, it could've been done; the fact that it wasn't means that there were too few such missions that couldn't be better served by other vehicles (that didn't have to worry about carrying around a ton of baggage focused around keeping people alive).


  > a fully-automated landing was theoretically possible (the software was there, but it was never fully tested on the real Shuttle).
Actually, the only hardware missing for a fully automated landing was a relay to deploy the landing gear. Later shuttle flights - maybe only one - actually carried a wiring harness that _could_ have been configured to enable remote / automated landing gear deploy.

That said, landing the shuttle was a challenge and an achievement. No pilot would give up the opportunity to perform such a prestigious landing. And the shuttle commander was always a pilot.

> The Soviets copied most of the design but used their own engine.

This is overselling it. They were aerodynamically very similar, but the shuttle had the SSME (space shuttle main engines, ~250tonnes thrust each) burning from liftoff to orbit, while Buran had only orbital thrusters (9 tonnes thrust)- all the thrust from liftoff through orbit came from the engines on Energia + boosters.

In other words: reusable upper stage vs fully reusable rocket minus the drop tank
For certain definitions of reusable, yes. Certainly retaining the SSME's for refurbishment was a big accomplishment. I wish Energia+buran could have maintained funding for a few decades - concepts for the flyback boosters were cool and possibly promised to be more quickly/reliably reusable than the space shuttle ended up being.
Today the Shuttle is largely regarded as refurbishable, not reusable. Reusability was the goal, but the SRBs actually cost more to recover and refurbish than to just spin a new casing, and the orbiter was so thoroughly disassembled and inspected after each flight - including disassembling each SSME - that no definition of reusable for any other product would apply.

That said, it does seem that at least one of the X-37Bs actually is reusable, in the sense that that it seems to have no major disassembly occur between flights. But it is so closely guarded that we really have only hints, not facts.

I did mention the engine differences. There are many articles about it, and a family member, who was directly involved, told me more.

  > and mostly burned up on reentry due to the bad heat tiles
This is not true so far as I know. If you have some source documenting heat damage to the orbiter I'd love to see it. I believe that the Buran lost about half a dozen tiles on reentry, contrast with STS-1 which lost more than a dozen. In fact, the maiden launch of Columbia was actually delayed over a year because when transporting the shuttle something like 2000 tiles were lost on the flight - subsonic on the back of a 747.
Wow that was a good test to run, even if by mistake.
The 747 flight? Yeah, in retrospect STS-1 was lucky on so many counts. And so were at least half a dozen other shuttle flights. In one incident a missing tile on descend allowed the hot plasma to interact with the airframe. By sheer 1 in 24,300 chance that tile was covering a steel antenna, which melted. Had that been almost any other tile, it would have melted the aluminum airframe.

In my opinion, STS-1 was far more dangerous - and lucky - than even Vostok 1. Vostok 1 at least was using a rocket that had a flight history. And no shaky solids. And a proven heat shield. And though both flights had ejection seats, only one was able to launch those seats clear of the rocket exhaust.

One of them is actually sitting out in the open and now visible on Google Maps:,38.1431209,154m/data...
I think is more accurate regarding its only and uncrewed flight. Especially interesting is the automatic landing. Oh, and it has something about the tiles, too.

Maybe you should discover some other magazines.

Of course they just copied heat tiles and launched them without any prior testing. This is how things are done in space exploration.
The buran. That is an awesome spy Vs spy story. Thank you, this made my day.
That's just plain wrong. Energiya/Buran was a fundamentally different system from STS, and only had a superficially similar look, as the silhouette was the only copied part to conform with party requirements. For one, the orbiter was a separate autonomous spacecraft with its own fuel tanks and the main engines, not an integral part of the launcher. It used LOX/RP1 - in orbit! - for both RCS and main engines, with larger dV budget as a result. The control system was absolutely different. Etc etc etc.

The Buran design process is pretty well documented in general, and a lot was written about it. The original starting OS-120 concept was pretty much a verbatim copy of the layout and high-level decisions of the Shuttle (they didn't have the "NASA plans", they only had a layout and open data), but they a) realized they couldn't make the SRBs as they used liquid fuels for ICBMs and didn't have the production capability for such large diameter solid rockets, and b) their own additional requirements crept in. So the design evolved over time into an entirely different one.

>NASA caught on (with help from CIA) and implanted falsified heat tile formulas, which the Soviets copied. Their first Buran only flew once and mostly burned up on reentry due to the bad heat tiles.

The heat tiles used a different material, and it didn't burn up, so this makes little sense.

Same with their Buran space shuttles. They're just sitting in decaying facilities.

It doesn't even make sense; clean them up and move to a nice museum hangar and it would basically be free money. I expect they profit quite nicely already from fines and bribes from all people that go to visit the shuttle anyway.
It's the ultimate example of 'you can buy it but you can't afford it'.
It's not unfounded, and they knew about it before it ever flew once. A family member was in the CIA at the time (later at NSA and RAND) and played a role after they were sent to the USSR after graduating college to study Russian (paid for by CIA, they know 8 languages). They translated the technical Russian Buran plans/documents and decoded them for our scientists to compare to their own, as well as help slip design flaws into plans they knew would get stolen (because they knew who was stealing them from Nasa). They met with the president over the issue multiple times. True story. They were also involved in every stealth program until they retired in the early 2k's. They were in the pentagon when the plane struck on 9/11. I really wish I could get them to talk more or write a book lol. [Using "they" to avoid gendering family member]

The Soviets (at the time) didn't "copy" it. They stole the plans and made it from them, adding in a few alterations, although the plans they stole were purposefully flawed.

If you're up for it, you can visit the Buran's in their final resting place in Baikonur. They're just sitting there rotting away. Here's a video of some kids who broke in and had some fun exploring:

Article about the Soviet's espionage to get the plans:

In re the youtube vid, that's a flippin' huge hanger. Crazy that this stuff is sitting dormant.
They told you about these highly classified operations?
It's not classified anymore (I linked to a story that gives more info than I did), and you can be sure they won't tell me most details of things I ask about. If you think they sit there and tell me state secrets, think again lol. They're quite frustrating to talk to about this kind of stuff with because they won't answer most questions, or answer vaguely, and give absolutely no visual or audio indication of what they're thinking or what the answer might be. No wink-wink nod-nod. Completely dead-pan. You don't get to the level they were at by not understanding what you can and can't talk about. They don't slip up when drinking. They're still active in the community in the public sector side post retiring.
There’s a fantastic book about the stealth program by the former director of the Skunk Works, Ben Rich
There's an interesting story about how the CIA got wind that the Soviet Union was trying to steal the US's space shuttle plans in the late 70's/early 80s. So, they mixed in some fake formulas for the heat shield tiles, among other defects, which Russia copied and built. Their "Buran" shuttle made 1 flight and mostly burned up on reentry due to the faulty heat tiles. If you ever see any pictures of the Buran's, they look identical to the US's shuttles, because they were using stolen designs. My aunt was actually directly involved in uncovering this. It would actually make a great movie.

Edit: Here's a really cool video some guys made when they broke into the facility in Kazakhstan where the Burans currently sit, slowly falling apart.

I wish there was a centralized repository of interesting Cold War stories, it seems like there would be a lot.
There are urbex people who took footage of a real decaying Buran in Kazakhstan. Illegally, of course.

Adventure ever to the abandoned Soviet Space Shuttles in Baikonur

Dec 12, 2018 · 3 points, 0 comments · submitted by cbanek
There was a great youtube video of some people visiting the site which I found absolutely riveting:
Wow, they actually go inside the spacecraft.
And fly a drone inside the hangar.
Worth posting separately, awesome video, thank you.
those lads are crazy
Isn't that trespassing on military property? I would shit myself, the risk is too high to be detained and accused of spying.
Not strictly military, but typically it's the FSB that turns up.
That actually makes it worse.
People do the same thing in the states.

In the article, they say that "they're not even owned any longer by the Russian government.". So maybe it's just garden variety trespassing on private property?
>Isn't that trespassing on military property? I would shit myself, the risk is too high to be detained and accused of spying.

in Russia it isn't blind straight application of Femida. Instead it is always personal - you can be accused of spying or given a private tour, especially if you have a bottle of good cognac and a high quality cold smoked salmon to share :)

> in Russia it isn't blind straight application of Femida. Instead it is always personal - you can be accused of spying or given a private tour, especially if you have a bottle of good cognac and a high quality cold smoked salmon to share :)

That's the better way right there. We need more of that attitude in the U.S.

> We need more of that attitude in the U.S.

everything has its price, and as an immigrant to US from Russia, i'm not sure that i would recommend for that attitude/approach to be applied here, at least not in full force, may be if just a bit/sometimes :)

Yeah, my point was not to run the entire society that way. We have too much of that on the big issues. Rather, it's OK to have it on a small scale where it's basically harmless, like paying off some cop with a little vodka when you get caught trespassing on some private land because you want to see some old space shuttles. And not OK when you steal billions with some fake mortgage repackaging that you sell to investors.

The U.S. has gone too far on the small stuff, and completely misses the big stuff. Posted something crass on Twitter 10 years ago? That's it, you're fired! We should consider jailing you! Amassed hundreds of millions of dollars while earning a government salary? No problem, nothing to see here.

We pretty much do. If you have enough money, there is no such thing as legal trouble. It was just a misunderstanding (once the check clears, of course).
You're replying to a description of corruption. You have that already. Wealthy corporations write your laws and the corporate elite are immune to prosecution.
This video showing some guys sneaking into the facility might have been staged, but it does show good pictures of the vehicles:

These crazy people went and made a youtube video about it in 2017:
Jul 09, 2017 · 159 points, 40 comments · submitted by enricotal
My Father-in-law was on the team that wrote the OS for that shuttle.
Cool! Any interesting stories he can share?
It is really interesting how similar the Russian space shuttle is in design to the American space shuttle. Kinda like how all of China's latest generation fighter jets look suspiciously similar to their American counterparts...
I believe this story runs deeper.

See, there are only so many form-factors you can do given a particular set of requirements. In a lot of cases it's just one, this is why all modern passenger planes look very similar — aerodynamics dictate the form as soon as you accept the requirements (safely and cheaply transport people from A to B).

The Shuttle had wings quite larger than the minimum necessary to land. Apparently the reason for that is military's requirement for "polar once around" capability: it had to be able to launch, do one polar orbit and land immediately [1]. Such a maneuver makes it impossible to predict when and where the Shuttle will overfly some (e.g. Soviet) territory. The problem is that while the Shuttle does that orbit, the Earth spins a bit and now you are over ocean. To compensate for that, Shuttle had to have large aerodynamic surfaces so it can fly sideways and land properly. If not for this requirement, Shuttle may had smaller and lighter wings and lower chance of damaging heat proof tiles.

We know that requirement existed because nowadays Shuttle's design documents are declassified. However, I've not seen a single bit of rationale for Buran's shape/wing surface. So it may be the case that it's not just a copycat, but copying without for the sake of keeping up, with no purpose for the copy.


It seems espionage is a recurring theme :
Fun fact... although the Soviets (obviously) never executed, they actually independently developed the exact same solution for going to the moon as the US used - lunar orbit rendezvous.

That's because Buran was built as a direct response to the Space Shuttle. Apparently the Soviets couldn't imagine civilian uses for such a large reusable vehicle so built their own to find out what it was for.

There are also significant differences though. Buran didn't carry its own engines, Energia provided all the launch thrust. The orbital manoeuvring system used LOX/Kerosene instead of MMH/N2O4. Also it was fully automated, its solo launch and landing happened under computer control.

It was designed for the Air Force for delivering military satellites to polar orbit.
It's a bit more than similarity. Watch the launch video of the Buran and you'll see it executes a roll shortly after take-off. Why does it do that? The American space shuttle performs that exact roll at that exact height because the orientation of pad 39A at Cape Canaveral is wrong and it corrects as soon as it clears the tower. The Buran launches from a different tower at a different latitude with a different height at a different orientation... but it performs _exactly_ the same roll. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
All space craft perform a roll program to align with the selected launch azimuth, which is chosen for a specific orbital inclination and launch site latitude.

Without roll, all spacecraft from a launch site would be placed on similarly inclined orbits which would be useless.

My conclusion is that you've got no idea what you're talking about!
From your link:

> During the launch of a space shuttle, the roll program was simultaneously accompanied by a pitch maneuver and yaw maneuver.

It's the STS-specific pitch and yaw I'm talking about. And specifically that it happened at the height it would happen at the Cape, whereas energia had a different tower design that would have allowed the roll to happen earlier, for better efficiency.

Which launch video are you talking about? The only ones I was able to find don't show enough material to see post-take-off maneuvers.
All space craft perform a roll program to align with the selected launch azimuth, which is chosen for a specific orbital inclination and launch site latitude.

Without roll, all spacecraft from a launch site would be placed on similarly inclined orbits which would be useless.

That's not surprising at all, and would be required even if Buran was developed completely independently to STS. Without that manoeuvre the engines would thrust off-axis due to the side-mounted payload. It's easier to compensate for off-axis pitch than yaw when you have gravity to account for.

For Soyuz launches on the other hand they physically rotate the launch pad.

Let's not get too cocky here. Copying went both ways:

And the pork barrel project extraordinaire:

Lockheed entered into a "partnership" with Yakovlev, copied the blueprints, and dissolved the "partnership", while pocketing hundreds of billions in US government largesse. The end result even looks similar.

I didn't know that with the Yak. There's some footage of it flying / crashing
This is not very well known in the US, although the Russians were sore about it for quite a while. This was back in early 90s when the US was universally perceived as a "friend" by freshly ex-Soviet people for the first time in their lives, and such military cooperation was actually possible. Turns out this somewhat naive trust was misguided.
Amazing. If I ever get banned from entering a country, I want it to be for something epic like this.
The question is if you could leave the country in the first place.
Don't post the video to YouTube prior to making your getaway.
I'm super curious how they figured out these were here and the exact location.

Second, If that were me, I'd be wearing a respirator and medical gloves. God knows what sort of toxic chemicals are floating around.

Maybe they read the myriad of old articles about the site? The above is from 2015, though I recall reading about the find years earlier.
Reminds me of Viceland where they toured the area around Chernobyl:

Except this was like a million times more hardcore, and more awesome with space shuttles.

I expected better from Vice. They were just drunk the entire time and didn't get to see the mutated animals or anything.

I wonder why they keep these shuttles abandoned compared to turning them into museum type pieces. Pretty amazing that these awesome machines are just abandoned on a military base.

For those interested in some video footage of animals in the radioactive zone a decent video here:

TLDW: No massive mutations like VICE teased with the 3 eyed boars etc.

I was disappointed to learn it wasn't a difficult place to visit after the kidofspeed girl posted about her (fake) motorcycle tour of the place some years ago.


You can book a flight to Ukraine and go on a tour of Chernobyl yourself. It's kind of a standard tourist thing now, no law-breaking required.
For anyone who's actually going there: you have to book the tour 2 weeks ahead because the company that will be taking you there needs to get an entry permission for each visitor.
On my bucket list:

- tour the Chernobyl area

- tour the Buran facility

- sit ringside to a rocket launch in Kazakhstan

Who's in??

If only you posted it a few weeks ago... I just came back from touring the Chernobyl area. 10/10 recommended, would go again.

The remaining two of your points are on my bucket list too.

If you visit the European Astronaut Corps (ESAC) in Bonn/Cologne you can see a lot of cool stuff - they have 1:1 mockups of the ISS (various modules) including stickers, a neutral buoyancy lab and a Soyuz trainer. It's tricky to get in randomly unless you have friends there (not for any security reason, it's just not a public place), but I think they do tours every now and again.

Although why Kazakhstan? You can visit Cape Canaveral (which launches fairly often) or French Guyana. You wouldn't want to be ringside, even if you could get there. There's a good chance you'd be deafened. Rocket launches sound like a fighter jet flyby even when you're in the public viewing areas.

Don't forget Tanegashima, which prides itself on being the most beautiful space launch site.
Great footage, perfect use case for drones, their channel looks pretty interesting too.
This reminded me of the film Baikonur [1], actually shot on location with a few views of the Soviet facilities there.


I remember reading somewhere that those shuttles were in an old hangar that collapsed on top of them. Looks like that wasn't true, this was definitely shot fairly recently, drones and all.
They actually mention the hanger collapse during the video, that was the only ex-operational Buran that got crushed. The hanger in the video is the one that houses partially completed Burans.
At one point in the video they mention that this is what happened to the only Buran that actually was in space. The ones in the video were never completed/in service it seems.
Such a waste. Rusia should restore those sites so people can visit them.
If you want to see a Buran without hiking through the desert for 3 days, you can go to Technik Museum Speyer [1] - they also have other great air&space related exhibits (notably including an Antonov An-22 and a retired Boeing 747-200).


Yes, I can second that. Cool museum. My kids love it, too.
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