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Space race

Russia's secret space shuttles have been sitting in plain sight for 22 years

Take a look at the Buran.

IN 1974, RUSSIA launched its largest, most expensive project in space exploration history.

The stars of the project, called the Buran program, were its space shuttles, which were built in secret from designs the Soviet secret police stole from NASA.

The Soviets invested anywhere from tens of millions to billions on the project, which was terminated in 1993. The sites where the shuttles were laid to rest have since been completely abandoned.

Photographer Ralph Mirebs recently visited one of these dust-ridden graveyards and chronicled the journey on his LiveJournal blog, where you can see the full collection.

The abandoned hangar is located on a site that belong to Russia’s space launch facility, called Baikonur Cosmodrome, where rockets are still launched today.

the-abandoned-garage-also-called-a-hangar-is-located-on-a-site-that-belong-to-russias-space-launch-facility-called-baikonur-cosmodrome-where-rockets-are-still-launched-today Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

The abandoned hangar is 433 feet long and 203 feet high with giant doors on either end, shown below, that slid open to release the shuttles.

the-abandoned-hangar-is-433-feet-long-and-203-feet-high-with-giant-doors-on-either-end-shown-below-that-slid-open-to-release-the-shuttles Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Near the top of this photo are beams attached with cranes that could lift up to 400 tons.

near-the-top-of-this-photo-are-beams-attached-with-cranes-that-could-lift-up-to-400-tons Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Buran is Russian for “snowstorm” or “blizzard.” The Russians built only few prototypes of these shuttles, and only one of them actually flew.

buran-is-russian-for-snowstorm-or-blizzard-the-russians-built-only-few-prototypes-of-these-shuttles-and-only-one-of-them-actually-flew Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

The shuttles were designed to carry cosmonauts into space but never did. The first and only flight was unmanned. It took place in 1988 and lasted a total of 206 minutes, during which time the spacecraft successfully launched, orbited Earth twice, and landed.

the-shuttles-were-designed-to-carry-cosmonauts-into-space-but-never-did-the-first-and-only-flight-was-unmanned-it-took-place-in-1988-and-lasted-a-total-of-206-minutes-during-which-time-the-spacecraft-successfully- Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Stored in this hangar are two shuttles that never flew. The only shuttle that reached space was destroyed in 2002 when the roof of the hangar it was stored in collapsed.

stored-in-this-hangar-are-two-shuttles-that-never-flew-the-only-shuttle-that-reached-space-was-destroyed-in-2002-when-the-roof-of-the-hangar-it-was-stored-in-collapsed Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Mirebs took this epic shot of both shuttles from a viewing platform at one end of the hangar.

mirebs-took-this-epic-shot-of-both-shuttles-from-a-viewing-platform-at-one-end-of-the-hangar Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Lining the walls of the hangar are ramps that former workers used to reach different levels of the building.

lining-the-walls-of-the-hangar-are-ramps-that-former-workers-used-to-reach-different-levels-of-the-building Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

According to Mirebs, the building’s support beams, shown below, were made from special steel that could withstand the shockwave if there was an explosion during construction.

according-to-mirebs-the-buildings-support-beams-shown-below-were-made-from-special-steel-that-could-withstand-the-shockwave-if-there-was-an-explosion-during-construction Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Not surprisingly, after sitting for 22 years, the shuttles are not in superb, or even good, condition. Here you can see a broken window on one of the shuttle’s cockpit sky windows.

not-surprisingly-after-sitting-for-22-years-the-shuttles-are-not-in-superb-or-even-good-condition-here-you-can-see-a-broken-window-on-one-of-the-shuttles-cockpit-sky-windows Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Dust isn’t the only thing covering these shuttles. Look closely and you’ll see a generous smattering of bird droppings across the nose of this shuttle:

dust-isnt-the-only-thing-covering-these-shuttles-look-closely-and-youll-see-a-generous-smattering-of-bird-droppings-across-the-nose-of-this-shuttle Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

It looks like the birds missed the second shuttle, facing the opposite end of the hangar.

it-looks-like-the-birds-missed-the-second-shuttle-facing-the-opposite-end-of-the-hangar Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Like NASA’s space shuttles, the Buran shuttles were designed for reuse. The single shuttle that was launched in 1988 remains the only reusable spacecraft Russia has ever launched.

like-nasas-space-shuttles-the-buran-shuttles-were-designed-for-reuse-the-single-shuttle-that-was-launched-in-1988-remains-the-only-reusable-spacecraft-russia-has-ever-launched Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Like the shuttles, the building is also falling apart. You can see that the steel beams holding the building together are severely rusted.

like-the-shuttles-the-building-is-also-falling-apart-you-can-see-that-the-steel-beams-holding-the-building-together-are-severely-rusted Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

And the paint on the walls is slowly but surely peeling away.

and-the-paint-on-the-walls-is-slowly-but-surely-peeling-away Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

On the ground floor, Mirebs grabbed some incredible shots of the underbelly of the shuttles, which are lined with black tiles that act as a protective heat shield.

on-the-ground-floor-mirebs-grabbed-some-incredible-shots-of-the-underbelly-of-the-shuttles-which-are-lined-with-black-tiles-that-act-as-a-protective-heat-shield Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

When any spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere it gets incredibly hot, approaching temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of this heat is due to friction between it and molecules in the atmosphere. The heat shield is designed to withstand these temperatures and protect the spacecraft from completely falling apart.

when-any-spacecraft-re-enters-earths-atmosphere-it-gets-incredibly-hot-approaching-temperatures-of-over-3000-degrees-fahrenheit-most-of-this-heat-is-due-to-friction-between-it-and-molecules-in-the-atmosphere-the-h Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

The nose of the shuttles are also covered with these black tiles to protect the front of the spacecraft from overheating and roasting the passengers inside the cockpit.

the-nose-of-the-shuttles-are-also-covered-with-these-black-tiles-to-protect-the-front-of-the-spacecraft-from-overheating-and-roasting-the-passengers-inside-the-cockpit Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Here’s a peek at the inside of one of the cockpits, designed for pilots who never flew it.

heres-a-peek-at-the-inside-of-one-of-the-cockpits-designed-for-pilots-who-never-flew-it Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Igor Volk, who today is a retired cosmonaut, was supposed to be commander of the first manned Buran flight.

igor-volk-who-today-is-a-retired-cosmonaut-was-supposed-to-be-commander-of-the-first-manned-buran-flight Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Here’s a portal connecting the cockpit to the back of the shuttle, which is pitch black inside because the only windows are in the cockpit.

heres-a-portal-connecting-the-cockpit-to-the-back-of-the-shuttle-which-is-pitch-black-inside-because-the-only-windows-are-in-the-cockpit Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Mirebs had to light up the inside of the back of the shuttle to take this amazing shot. This interior is remarkably similar to the interior of NASA’s space shuttles.

mirebs-had-to-light-up-the-inside-of-the-back-of-the-shuttle-to-take-this-amazing-shot-this-interior-is-remarkably-similar-to-the-interior-of-nasas-space-shuttles Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Here’s another look at some of the interior mechanics of the shuttles. It looks like there are some shelves on the left that might have been used by cosmonauts to store food.

heres-another-look-at-some-of-the-interior-mechanics-of-the-shuttles-it-looks-like-there-are-some-shelves-on-the-left-that-might-have-been-used-by-cosmonauts-to-store-food Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Piled scraps of machinery were simply abandoned in this room:

piled-scraps-of-machinery-were-simply-abandoned-in-this-room Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

The Soviet government were initially considering some of their top space scientists to head the Buran program, but in the end command fell to Col. General Alexander Maksimov, who ran the military space and missile programs.

the-soviet-government-were-initially-considering-some-of-their-top-space-scientists-to-head-the-buran-program-but-in-the-end-command-fell-to-col-general-alexander-maksimov-who-ran-the-military-space-and-missile-pr Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

Russia launched their Buran program in 1974 in response to NASA’s space shuttle program. One of the main goals of the program was to send the first woman in history on a spacewalk.

russia-launched-their-buran-program-in-1974-in-response-to-nasas-space-shuttle-program-one-of-the-main-goals-of-the-program-was-to-send-the-first-woman-in-history-on-a-spacewalk Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

They actually succeeded four years before even launching their Buran shuttle. In 1984, Svetlana Yevgenyevna Savitskaya became the first woman to complete a spacewalk and the second woman ever in space.

they-actually-succeeded-four-years-before-even-launching-their-buran-shuttle-in-1984-svetlana-yevgenyevna-savitskaya-became-the-first-woman-to-complete-a-spacewalk-and-the-second-woman-ever-in-space Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

One piece of the shuttles that still seems to be in relatively good condition is its propulsion systems in the back.

one-piece-of-the-shuttles-that-still-seems-to-be-in-relatively-good-condition-is-its-propulsion-systems-in-the-back (1) Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

These engines were designed to fly the shuttle once it reached space. They weren’t nearly powerful enough to get the vehicles to space.

these-engines-were-designed-to-fly-the-shuttle-once-it-reached-space-they-werent-nearly-powerful-enough-to-get-the-vehicles-to-space Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

On his blog, Mirebs asks “Why spend billions on … space, if it does not bring profit for the foreseeable future?” Much of Mirebs’s photography documents Russia’s industrial decline after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

on-his-blog-mirebs-asks-why-spend-billions-on--space-if-it-does-not-bring-profit-for-the-foreseeable-future-much-of-mirebss-photography-documents-russias-industrial-decline-after-the-dissolution-of-the-ussr-in-199 Ralph Mirebs Ralph Mirebs

- Jessica Orwig

Look: Inside the abandoned rocket bases dotted across the United States >

Read: The final approach to Pluto – We live in very exciting times for space exploration >

More: A decade of observing Earth from space has given us these breathtaking views >

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