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The Severed Head and the Soviet Space Plane

USSR,Buran,Roscosmos
Mihir Tripathy
Tristan Dubin
April 26, 202210:00 AM

Once a crown jewel of the Soviet space program, the Buran became a graffitied wreck.

Half disassembled, it sits abandoned and rotting in a hangar in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe. And the Soviet Union’s last spaceplane is owned, not by Russia or Kazakhstan, but by Dauren Musa, a Kazakh Billionaire who is willing to trade it — for the skull of Kazakhstan’s last Khan. To understand how we got here, we need to delve deeper into the development of the Buran program, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

SPACE PLANES

The end of the Apollo program in 1972 concluded America’s reach for the Moon. NASA Astronaut Gene Cernan became the last person to walk the lunar surface, and post-Apollo 17, the US Government and NASA set their sights on more sustainable access to low earth orbit using their upcoming flagship spacecraft: the Space Shuttle.

The Soviet Union, by contrast, was focused on long-duration missions in low earth orbit. By 1971, after the catastrophic failures of the N1 moon rocket, they had already conducted a record-setting 24-day mission in space onboard the world's first space station — the Salyut.

As the development of the space shuttle got underway, soviet officials became increasingly concerned by the vehicle, especially because of its large cargo compartment and significant mass-return capability. Many perceived it to be a national security threat and a common notion among them was that the shuttle could drop a nuke on Moscow.

The Soviet's response to the Space Shuttle was Buran, developed with the capability to deliver 30 metric tonnes to lower orbit. Just like its American counterpart, the reusability of Buran was designed to reduce the cost of access to space. But at the time this was all theoretical, and as we know now, the space shuttle itself never achieved its projected cost savings.

With strong support from the Central Committee of the Soviet Union, the orders were in place to begin the development of the Buran reusable launch system. This included a booster, a spaceplane, an orbital tug, and upgrades to ground control and maintenance infrastructures to support high launch cadence. The Buran became the first reusable spacecraft in development by the Soviets, but the idea wasn’t particularly new with earlier proposals dating back to the late 1950s.

ENERGIA

Headed by Valentin Glushko, the NPO Energia corporation was contracted for the development of the system to be called Energia-Buran. Unlike the space shuttle’s STS, Glushko proposed a liquid-fueled heavy-lift launch vehicle known as Energia. It consisted of four strap-on boosters, each powered by a four-chambered, RP-1 and LOX-powered, RD-170 engine. The central core was powered by a single four-chambered hydrogen and LOX-powered RD-0120 engine.

This beast could place over 100 tonnes in low earth orbit.

Energia was not specifically designed to carry a spaceplane — Buran was just one of its intended payloads. As for the Buran spacecraft itself, Glushko’s NPO Energia came up with two competing designs for the orbital vehicle. One was named MTKVP, a 34-meter long lifting body space plane launched atop a stack of kerosene-powered boosters. The other, named OS-120, was a close replica of the American shuttle, composed of a delta-winged spaceplane equipped with 3 liquid hydrogen engines, strapped to an external tank and four liquid-fueled boosters.

After further development and analysis, NPO achieved a compromise between the two proposals. Named OK-92, it was a delta-winged spaceplane, equipped with two turbofan jet engines for atmospheric testing.

Development work continued and construction of the spacecraft began in 1980. Just like the shuttle, numerous test-flight articles were also constructed and these underwent various suborbital test flights. The first was performed as early as July 1983, followed by five additional tests. These test flights were conducted by 7 cosmonauts assigned to the Buran programme; all having experience in testing experimental aircraft. They were Ivan Ivanovich Bachurin, Alexei Sergeyevich Borodai, Anatoli Semyonovich Levchenko, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Shchukin, Rimantas Antanas Stankevičius, Igor Petrovich Volk, and Viktor Vasiliyevich Zabolotsky.

After years of development and testing — finally — in 1988, the Buran spacecraft launched atop an Energia booster from Pad 110/37 at Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in modern-day Kazakhstan. This was the first Buran launch, but no one at the time could have known it would also be the last. It was uncrewed and had no life support system installed. After orbiting our planet twice, it returned to Earth by performing an automated landing on the shuttle runway at Baikonur. This remains the only uncrewed landing of a space shuttle-type launch vehicle.

Everything went well, from launch to automated landing, so what happened?

The dissolution of the Soviet Union happened and it meant a tragic end for the too-short-lived program. Despite a picture-perfect debut mission, a collapsing government led to canceled funding for further development and operation of Energia and the Buran. By 1993, the program was officially canceled by President Boris Yeltsin.

But this was only the beginning of the Buran's tragic saga. There were two more space planes in production, named Orbiter 2K 1.02 and Orbiter 3K 2.01. Both spacecraft were mostly assembled, but they were never fully completed. The one that flew — named Buran 1K 1.01 — was housed in a MIK building with an Energia booster mockup in Baikonur.

However, continued lack of funds and a Russian economy in freefall forced inadequate maintenance of the ground equipment at Baikonur. These symbols for a Russian future in space simply couldn’t be a priority given the decline in standards of living and health expectancy, and economic stagnation that defined post-Soviet Russia throughout the 1990s. Years of neglect resulted in one of the most painful incidents at Baikonur. The roof of the hangar which housed the Orbiter 1K 1.01, collapsed on May 13th, 2002, destroying the only orbital soviet spaceplane, and taking the life of 8 Russian workers.

The only almost-complete Buran which remains somewhat intact is the Orbiter 2K 1.02, aka Ptichka, which has been similarly abandoned in a hangar, along with a model Energia rocket. Ptichka was supposed to be the second operational spaceplane, and was 95-97% completed.

While no outsiders are legally allowed to enter the hangar, a photographer broke into the complex in 2015 to document its condition. Looted and dust-laden, it was sad to see this historical spaceplane rotting and neglected, instead of inspiring future generations of Russians.

The Buran story went quiet for a while. Then, in May 2021 images began to circulate over a telegram channel that showed Ptichka vandalized by graffiti artists. The photo series documents several street artists infiltrating the facility and painting Cyrillic slogans across both sides of the rear fuselage, which read “Good. Yura we have arrived” (a reference to Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space) and “Before flying to stars, a person needs to learn how to live on Earth.”

This incident became a big wake-up call. The graffiti was painted over, round-the-clock security was established, and talks began to transfer the orbiter.

So why can’t Roscosmos just take Ptichka out, clean it up, and ship it to a museum? Because the Russians would soon be surprised to learn they don’t own it anymore.

FIGHTING OVER BURAN

After the fall of the soviet union, Russia had to lease the Baikonur Cosmodrome from the newly formed country of Kazakhstan. As funding became tighter, some Russian space companies began to sell off their Baikonur assets entirely.

The prime contractor for Buran was RSC Energia, which was also the largest contractor in the Russian Space Program. To manage their assets outside Russia, a subsidiary named CJSC Energia was created. In 2004, this company transferred its assets to RSE Infrakos, which turned them over to a Russian-Kazakh company, named JSC KRISP Aelita. In 2011, Kazakh businessman Dauren Musa bought the company’s shares and renamed the company to RSC Baikonur. Thus the Burya, as well as the mockup of the Energia rocket, which belonged to Aelita, became the property of Musa.

Or did it? While Musa came forward to claim ownership, the government of Kazakhstan also asserted a competing claim to the assets of RSC Baikonur, which included the Buran. This matter was litigated in court for over three years before the court settled the ownership matter in favor of the private company owned by Musa.

All of this was so murky that even Dmitry Rogozin, the Director-General of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, had no idea who owned the Buran. When asked if there are any plans to bring the Buran to a museum, he replied: “I tried to take it back, buy it back.”

“But I haven’t been able to figure out who owns it yet.”  

This brings us back to the story of a 200-year-old skull. When the ownership of the spaceplane seemingly settled in Musa’s favor, he initially didn’t want to give it back. But in September of last year, reports emerged that Musa would trade the spaceplane to Moscow — in exchange for the skull of Kazakhstan’s last Khan, Kenesary Kasymov.

From 1837 to 1847 Kasymov led forces during the 10-year struggle against the invasion of Kazakhstan by the Russian Empire. He was eventually killed by a rival khanate, who then sent his severed head to Russia. His skull remains a tense topic between Kazakhstan and the modern Russian state. Over the years, several Kazakh leaders have asked for it to be returned.

Musa remains adamant. In a recent interview, he escalated his rhetoric. Emphasizing Buran’s value as a bargaining chip, he described it as “the most valuable Russian artifact in Kazakhstan.”

He then added, "It is not water that flows in our veins, but blood, and it has the scent of wormwood." Wormwood is a common plant in Kazakhstan, and a key ingredient in absinthe.

Russian officials have continuously claimed that no one knows the whereabouts of Kasymov’s skull, and with Musa’s reluctance to trade for anything else, the future of Russia’s space plane remains gloomy and in dispute.

Our tribute patch to the beleaguered Buran is now available in the Supercluster Shop.

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Mihir Tripathy
Tristan Dubin
April 26, 202210:00 AM