Inside the Soviet space shuttle
June 14, 2015 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Russian urban exploration photographer Ralph Mirebs recently paid a visit to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where inside a giant abandoned hangar are decaying remnants of prototypes from the Soviet space shuttle program.
posted by AstroGuy (32 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, this is interesting. Wasn't there supposedly only one Buran shuttle remaining at Baikonur (after the other was destroyed when its hangar collapsed and the other was sent off to Germany)?
posted by schmod at 2:54 PM on June 14, 2015


I'm under the impression from other threads on the topic that these are all old photos (regardless of when the clam on these blogs say) taken before the collapse of the hangar and indeed there is one mock up Buran and one under rubble.
posted by phlyingpenguin at 2:59 PM on June 14, 2015


Looks like The Borg cube in there
posted by sio42 at 3:05 PM on June 14, 2015


There's the one in Gorki Park in Moscow too, which I believe was a mockup to test hull stress loading or something. It's parked between a rollercoaster and a hotdog stand.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 3:33 PM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the scenes with the abandoned Shuttle on Easter Island in David Brin's novel Earth.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:50 PM on June 14, 2015


schmod: Wasn't there supposedly only one Buran shuttle remaining at Baikonur (after the other was destroyed when its hangar collapsed and the other was sent off to Germany)?

The article states that one of the two is merely a mockup for testing, not the fully equipped shuttle.
posted by JauntyFedora at 5:54 PM on June 14, 2015


Interesting. According to this the Buran that was in Gorky park was the "mechanical, acoustic, and thermal" test vehicle.

Compare and contrast with the US Shuttle program, which used a test article called "OV-99" as its mechanical test bed. That test article was eventually finished into an orbiter, which flew with the name "Challenger".
posted by orangewired at 6:14 PM on June 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


One thing I learned from my research into nuclear submarine design is the US just loves making testing platforms that are also operational platforms.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:56 PM on June 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


One thing I learned from growing up under the space shuttle program is that the US just loves making "operational platforms" that explode when hit by a piece of foam or when left out in the cold overnight.
posted by 7segment at 7:12 PM on June 14, 2015


About a decade or so ago I came across these little press portfolios for the Buran and Mir Soviet space programs in a thrift store. Lovely photographic prints that appeared to have been created for propaganda purposes. What caught my eye was that the captions were in English.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:32 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


The US has also made nuclear submarines that fail to return to the surface after a flooding casualty or mysteriously explode in the middle of the atlantic for no discernable reason, for what it's worth.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:39 PM on June 14, 2015


That test article was eventually finished into an orbiter, which flew with the name "Challenger".

It didn't fly very long.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:56 PM on June 14, 2015


It spent more than 60 days in space and flew more than 25 million miles.
posted by ftm at 8:23 PM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Agree w/ ftm there.

I guess, what I'm confused (and made an overly glib joke about) is why Buran was ever even a thing.

Like, the space shuttle main engine was a complete boondoggle and the basic system architecture suffered from the couple catastrophic failure modes I mentioned that wouldn't even have happened with a more traditional setup. That being the case, and being as this goes back in time way before Reagan can take credit for "bankrupting the Soviet Union", how did they ever think this was a good idea?
posted by 7segment at 8:34 PM on June 14, 2015


Cape Canaveral was also in a state of decay, about a decade ago. It was very sad.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:18 PM on June 14, 2015


how did they ever think this was a good idea?

One of the not-so-secret design cases for the US space shuttle was snatching enemy spy satellites out of orbit for study. (Now that we know what went on e.g. with submarines attaching NSA equipment to undersea cables in Soviet waters, it doesn't seem as far fetched as it might have then.)

Whether Buran was done just to show they could, or whether the Russians really wanted that capability just in case they might need it (like if we started doing it), were probably key factors.
posted by dhartung at 11:50 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Overly glib jokes indeed. I have a friend who was an engineer on both fatal shuttle missions, on the last one he spent months working with the crew as a NASA payload specialist, and became quite close to them.

I'm not sure you can pin these accidents on negligent basic design, more on systems flaws. Every fatal aviation accident uncovers these, and we are talking about space flight.
posted by C.A.S. at 11:53 PM on June 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


One of the not-so-secret design cases for the US space shuttle was snatching enemy spy satellites out of orbit for study.

Another case of the human pilot being replaced by a military drone.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 12:20 AM on June 15, 2015


One of the not-so-secret design cases for the US space shuttle was snatching enemy spy satellites out of orbit for study.

IIRC the Shuttle played a key role in replacing the optics in the Hubble Space Telescope which always seemed to me more a result of design than error.
posted by three blind mice at 1:36 AM on June 15, 2015


> One thing I learned from growing up under the space shuttle program is that the US just loves
> making "operational platforms" that explode when hit by a piece of foam or when left out in the
> cold overnight.

One of these days they're going to find a totally unexpected failure mode in one of those superbatteries they're working so hard on now and it's going to release all of its stored energy at once and leave a sizeable crater in your neighborhood. Lots and lots of energy, confined space --> Earth-shattering KABOOM. Energy wants to be free.
posted by jfuller at 4:24 AM on June 15, 2015


Those are some very cool photos, whenever they were taken.
posted by OmieWise at 6:55 AM on June 15, 2015


Lots and lots of energy, confined space

Any plausible battery technology still has a significantly lower energy density than Gasoline. We're so far away from finding an energy storage mechanism that compares to gasoline, it isn't even funny.

If you manage to create a battery that has half of the energy density of wood (or a sandwich), there's a Nobel Prize and billions of dollars waiting for you.

...which is to say, a pile of oily rags can certainly burn your house down. However, that gigantic Tesla battery in your garage is still going to be storing less energy than the cup of gas in your lawnmower.
posted by schmod at 7:24 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


However, that gigantic Tesla battery in your garage is still going to be storing less energy than the cup of gas in your lawnmower.

And that's without even considering what the chain of events might be that leads to 'all the energy' being channeled into explosive force. I'm thinking it might involve Gambit.
posted by lodurr at 7:29 AM on June 15, 2015


As for the relative wisdom of Buran, a friend likes to point out that they did ultimately see reason and cancel it. Still, in many ways, it was a better design than ours. At least the main rocket could be used for other things.
posted by lodurr at 7:31 AM on June 15, 2015


IIRC the Shuttle played a key role in replacing the optics in the Hubble Space Telescope which always seemed to me more a result of design than error.

This way to Chemtrail Ridge.
posted by y2karl at 7:57 AM on June 15, 2015


I'm not sure you can pin these accidents on negligent basic design, more on systems flaws.

Having your crewed vehicle jutting out from the side of a rocket where it can get hit by falling debris, rather than on the top, counts as "negligent basic design" in my book.
posted by fifthrider at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2015


It goes deeper than design flaws.

Consider that at not one, but many -- the vast majority of times the issue came up -- when people asked, "can the impact of loose foam on the ship cause a problem?", trained engineers went with their gut response ('no, it's just foam, how could it hurt anything?') rather than whipping out their calculator and doing a few simple calculations to figure out the likely moment of impact. All the engineers who did the latter were worried; but the ones who did the former were not.

I'm happy to grant anyone that the design might have been bad. (Hell, I totally buy that.) But ironically, they made that bad design work and would have continued to do so, if they hadn't signed over to bureaucracy what should have been their roles as engineers.
posted by lodurr at 10:15 AM on June 15, 2015


Compare and contrast with the US Shuttle program

which also took a to-be-spaceworthy Enterprise and boshed it. From a usage standpoint the Buran test article was maybe a push: it didn't need a power-assist to go.

When the cold war was a thing so was parity. Who cared what it was? There couldn't be a gap..

The one photographed appears to be OK-1K2; Wikipedia notes its destinctive red framework. Almost ready for flight until there wasn't a need to Show Those Fucking Americans anymore and suddenly economics got real. There are test articles everywhere it seems. Hell, BOR-5 went on the block what seems not like all that long ago.

The cold war was dangerous, stupid and enormously wasteful. I am glad it is gone but my heart aches somewhat for its beautiful monstrosities, all slightly sad.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow -- I immediately recognized the "Ekranoplane" you linked to from an old Popular Science mag I saw as a young kid. It's a ground effect plane -- specifically, a "ram-wing" design. The bank of engines in front were meant to generate a bubble of pressure under the wings (i guess by artificially accelerating the air above them?).

They were supposed to be basically fast freighters, flying low over water or possibly very flat plains. Not a 'parity' project as such, because we had nothing like it (nor use for same). I loved those things when I was in my early teens, but looking back, I can see enormous flaws with the idea (which I suppose explains why they never built a fleet of them).
posted by lodurr at 1:11 PM on June 15, 2015


how did they ever think this was a good idea?

One of the not-so-secret design cases for the US space shuttle was snatching enemy spy satellites out of orbit for study.


I recently went to see Endeavour parked in my local science museum. Along the walls of its hangar they have plaques discussing each shuttle mission ever. About 1/3 to 1/4 of the missions mentioned "classified intelligence operation" or "classified military operation" as the sole or one of several purposes of the mission. I was surprised.
posted by holyrood at 6:07 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


However, that gigantic Tesla battery in your garage is still going to be storing less energy than the cup of gas in your lawnmower.

While it's pretty bad, it's not quite that bad.

I realized several years ago that the safest way to mow my obstacle-strewn lawn (cats and companions who think tossing tools they're done with in the grass is OK) is to mow with a string trimmer. And I've burned up three IC engines, one 2-stroke and two 4-stroke, doing that. So this year I bit the bullet and bought a Ryobi 40 volt electric power head to replace the latest dead 4-stroke.

This is the first battery powered electric tool I've ever used that lives up to its promise to at least not be pitifully embarrassed by gas. If it's not entirely as powerful as the gas engine it's close enough, and a battery charge lasts about 2/3 what the gas tank did. Figuring the power might not be quite as high let's call it half.

The battery weighs 1.5 kg. The IC gas tank held 7 fluid ounces, or around 200 grams of gasoline. This suggests that the battery carries around 1/15 the power by weight of gasoline, which is pretty good. Scaling up, a 100 kg house battery should be comparable to around 7 kg of gasoline -- quite a bit more than a cup. In fact it's about three gallons.

In the string trimmer it's an almost perfect tradeoff, as the battery almost exactly replaces the balancing heft of the IC engine. For cars it's a little more marginal but getting there. The bigger issue, of course, is that my 1.5 kg battery costs around $100 and represents most of the cost of the new power head. You can scale that up too.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:20 PM on June 15, 2015


I always thought that the main benefit of the shuttle concept was simply it's very size. It was big enough to haul 7 people, enough supplies to sustain them for a couple weeks, and still room enough to carry a big-ass satellite into space in it's back, and then deploy it. It was also big enough to safely grab onto big satellites currently in space, and then either provide a platform for repair (Hubble would be dead now, would have been dead years ago, without the shuttle program.) or to even bring a satellite back down to earth.

It had it's problems for sure, but nothing else comes even close to the variety of tasks in LEO that it preformed. The soyuz is the only vaguely similar craft, and it has been nothing but a literal ferry to various space stations since the 70's.


Also, in both of the major disasters of the shuttle program, there were engineers who did do the math. Both were documented possible issues. They'd even had more minor foam impact incidents before. If you're looking for someone to blame, I really don't think it's the engineers or the design, but instead the american public and government for wanting the shuttle to be popping into space on a regular, frequent basis for a good ROI, and NASA management for putting those desires over safety.

Anyone who thinks that you can simply design away all the extraordinary dangers of space travel is a fool. Mistakes will always happen even with the best possible design. Humans are fallible, and space travel is unforgiving.

This is why robots in space are better. No one gives a shit if a robot dies except whoever paid for it.
posted by neonrev at 11:06 AM on June 16, 2015


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