White Elephant

How the Soviet Buran space shuttle helped the United States win the cold war.

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When Russian president Boris Yeltsin quietly canceled the Buran in 1993, the move came as no surprise. Even people who devoted careers to the program say it was the right decision. Although a richer country might have found the Buran a versatile tool for military or civilian applications, by the late 1980s Russia could no longer afford cold war gamesmanship, having bankrupted itself trying to keep up with the U.S. arms program.

Like other relics of the Buran program, the runway that was built for the spaceplane ended up in a state of decay in the 1990s, although it has since been revived as a runway for commercial cargo flights in and out of Baikonur. In the 1980s, though, Buran’s landing strip was a technical marvel. Designed to minimize wear and tear on the vehicle, it used a high-grade reinforced concrete, which had to be polished to an unprecedented degree of smoothness—varying by no more than a tenth of an inch every 10 feet—by diamond polishing disks developed specially for the task.

The design and construction of the runway were military operations overseen by retired major Vitaly Zhilo, who remembers “working enthusiastically” for eight years on the Buran project. “There was a certain prestige for those who were working on the space race,” Zhilo recalls. “It is rewarding to know you are building something as unique as a 4.5-kilometer [2.8-mile] runway for your country’s spaceplane.”

A movie-star-handsome man at 58, Zhilo regrets that many thousands of people had no idea what they were building in the factories. And by the time they found out, the excitement was long gone. “After the first [Buran] flight, when the point was made that we could do it, we also knew that the money would dry up immediately. We knew that Progress rockets could deliver payloads to orbit for ten times less expense,” Zhilo says.

I ask Zhilo to join me for a visit to Gorky Park in Moscow, where one of the Buran vehicles is on permanent display, but he declines. “It’s too expensive. It’s too sad.” He pauses. “We were first with a dog in space, then a man, then a woman, then a spacewalk, then two vehicles docking together. All Soviet people were so proud of winning the space race. But by the time the Buran was ready to go, ordinary people had too many problems just trying to feed themselves. ”

Of all the Buran vehicles that were built, perhaps the most poignantly visible is this full-scale analog, used for stress and vibration testing in the early 1980s. It now resides with a group of carnival rides in a far corner of Gorky Park. The Buran is the least visited of the attractions, says Yuri Smirnov, the caretaker for the display. The spaceplane was brought to the park on a barge going down the Moscow River in 1995, then lifted and set in place by two huge cranes. A Coca-Cola machine and some plastic tables and chairs are arrayed under the starboard wing. For 60 rubles ($5.50) you can climb the stairs and sit in the cargo bay, which is fitted with seats that tilt downward when the half-hour program starts.

The show begins with 10 minutes of rocket engine noises thundering from large speakers that flank a six-footsquare screen; meanwhile, the projectionist waits for late ticket holders. When she finally rolls the film, we see the dawn launch at Baikonur. Then an interior shot of the cockpit shows two “pilots” flying the ship, even though Buran’s lone orbital spaceflight was unmanned. A voiceover interrupts to advise the audience that for the equivalent of about $10, they can have a star named after themselves or a loved one. Certificates are for sale at the kiosk under the wing after the show.

The rest of the movie is all science fiction. The Buran crew shoots down a meteor that will destroy Earth. A fictional docking with the Mir space station is depicted with a puffy-faced cosmonaut, Gennady Strekalov, waving amiably at the camera. Next we see a spacewalk to fix an aft thruster problem that could prevent the shuttle’s reentry. Then comes dated footage of Houston’s mission control; the guys at the console, their hair covering their ears, all flash thumbs up. The film reverts to actual footage of the Buran landing, and a woman’s voice again reminds the audience to buy a star from the girl at the bottom of the steps on our way out. As we head down the stairs, we can see a nearby pirate ship ride swinging 60 people slowly back and forth by the Moscow River.

“Ninety-five percent of the people who see that film treat it as history,” says Vladimir Mozgovoy. “Too bad, it’s mostly school groups who still visit the Buran, and they’re getting a totally false history. But I guess they’re seeing fragments of truth about the last statement of an empire.” Mozgovoy, a portly man wearing a Mafia wannabe’s black leather jacket on a hot afternoon, introduces himself as “technical director” of the attraction. “People who worked in the Buran program sometimes visit and they almost always leave with tears in their eyes,” Mozgovoy says. “I hate that. But fortunately, most of the people who worked on it are retired and can’t afford to come here.” He corrects himself: “Last year, Anatoly Artsebarsky, another of the cosmonauts who trained for the Buran, had sort of a party for his friends here. In the middle of the movie, [when Artsebarsky] appeared in his spacesuit, they had a few toasts.”

In addition to the Buran attraction at Gorky Park, two full-size Burans and three Energia rockets resided until very recently in enormous hangars at Baikonur. Last May the roof of one hangar collapsed, killing eight people and destroying the only Buran vehicle that had made it into space. A couple of years ago, the model that Igor Volk flew was put on a barge and shipped to Australia for the Olympic games. “We were told that the analog was rented to the Australians for the games,” Volk says. “In fact, someone sold it to the Australians and we’ll never see it back in Russia.” He laughs derisively when I ask who sold it. “The bosses who sold it don’t want us to know anything else about that project.” He shrugs, as if to say he isn’t much interested in finding out either. “It’s over.”

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