The Quest to Get Photos of the USSR’s First Space Shuttle

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On November 15, 1988, the Soviet Union’s first space shuttle, the Buran, blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan. With striking design similarities to the US space shuttle—prompting speculation that Soviet scientists had stolen or copied American plans—the Buran (Russian for “blizzard”) was intended as the future of the Soviet space program. Instead, its first flight proved to be its last. A year later, the Berlin Wall came down, followed in subsequent years by the dissolution of the USSR. The space shuttle program was suspended and then, in 1993, canceled by Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet Russian president.

Today, three versions of the Buran survive. One, a full-scale test model, is on display at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Museum. The other two—including the shuttle that was scheduled to fly the second mission—are rotting away in an abandoned hangar in another part of the sprawling Baikonur complex. Over the years, local thieves have reportedly snuck into the hangar to harvest valuable metals and electronics. The site has also been targeted by international adventurers seeking a glimpse at Soviet space history. Among them is French photographer Jonk, who managed to sneak into the hangar in April 2018.

Jonk is a veteran urban explorer, or “urbexer,” who estimates he’s photographed around 1,500 abandoned places around the world. But few places were more difficult to access than the Buran hangar. For one thing, Baikonur is still an active spaceport—the Russian space program leases the site from Kazakhstan for around $115 million a year, and uses it to launch its own and other country’s astronauts into space. (Since NASA ended its shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts have hitched rides into space with the Russians.)

Baikonur’s location in the middle of the vast Kazakh Steppe presented another challenge. To get there, Jonk and three friends flew to the nearby city of Kyzylorda and took a four-hour bus ride to the small town of Toretam. From there, they found a local willing to drop them off on the side of the highway at nightfall, around 20 kilometers (13 miles) from Baikonur. Using a GPS device programmed with the hangar’s coordinates, they hiked across the rocky steppe for seven hours, wearing headlamps to see their way.

Jonk and company arrived at the hangar at around 2 am, and found it unguarded. Climbing in through an unlocked window, they began looking for the shuttles in the cavernous, pitch-dark building. “When I finally passed my flashlight over the shuttle, it was amazing,” he recalls. “To see it abandoned in the dark like that was something I’ll never forget.” After bedding down in sleeping bags inside the hangar for a few hours, Jonk and his three-man team spent the next two days exploring and photographing the two shuttles. Despite the dismal storage conditions, they found the shuttles to be in better condition than expected. “Of all the abandoned sites I’ve explored, this was by far the most impressive,” he says. They also snuck into a nearby hangar housing a prototype of the old Energia-M rocket used to blast the Buran into space. To avoid security patrols, they took turns performing guard duty on the roof of the hangar. On the two occasions when a security officer stopped by to check on the hangars, the watchman used a walkie-talkie to warn the others to stay quiet.

At the end of their two-day sojourn, Jonk and his friends trekked back across the steppe to rendezvous with their driver at a prearranged spot on the highway. Six days after departing from his native Paris, he returned bearing some of the world’s hardest-to-get photographs.



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