The Soviet space shuttle's final ride

For nearly two decades, the Soviet Union attempted to beat the United States in the space race with its own fleet of space shuttles. Here's the story of the final Soviet shuttle's last ride.

Dubbed the Buran, the Russian space craft was supposed to be safer, more nimble and could carry more cargo than the U.S. space shuttle.

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The Soviet space shuttle's final ride

Just as the race to put a man on the moon sparked a Cold War space rivalry, the decision by President Richard Nixon in 1969 to build a reusable shuttle set the Soviets down the same path. Over 18 years, more than 1 million people would be employed by Soviet authorities designing and building a fleet of shuttles and the rockets needed to put them in orbit.

The Soviet space shuttle's final ride

The Buran — "Snowstorm" in Russian — had several advantages over the U.S. shuttles. It could land at regular airports, carry more cargo into space, and complete a round-trip to space unmanned, as it did in November 1988.

The Soviet space shuttle's final ride

While the launch was two years behind schedule, and well after the U.S. shuttle program had begun, the Buran's launch was still considered a great victory for the Soviet space program — one that was about to collapse along with the Soviet empire. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the money to keep the Buran project alive disappeared; and the Baikonur spaceport became the property of Kazakhstan.

The Soviet space shuttle's final rideS

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan lacked the money for the upkeep at Baikonur cosmodrome. The Buran that went to space had been stored in on a mockup of the Energia rocket, awaiting another ride that never came. In 2002, the hangar holding both craft collapsed, destroying the Buran and killing eight people.

The Soviet space shuttle's final ride

Imagine you're a teen-ager near Baikonur a few years back, looking to escape for a few hours and down some vodka. How cool would it be to go drinking in a space shuttle? That was the fate of this Buran, a non-flying model used for aerodynamics tests and one of only four that survived. Another Buran ended up in a German museum. When the land this model had been parked on was sold to developers in 2007, it was finally moved indoors to the space center's museum.

The Soviet space shuttle's final ride

The pride of Soviet space engineering took its last trip with what appears to be a ragmuffin collection of heavy machinery and local farmers. Sure, a few stop signs scraped the wings, but the Buran arrived intact, mostly. While the old Buran has been turned into an attraction for Kazakh schoolchildren, Russian space officials have said they hope to rebuild their shuttle program, using lessons from the Buran, by 2018.