In May 2017 a team of intrepid explorers traveled to a remote Cold War spaceport, where they made an exhilarating discovery: a decaying icon of space-age technology, apparently abandoned in a vast and dilapidated hangar. And thanks to their nifty drone, they were able to capture incredible footage of it before the authorities could discover them.
The team in question included several urban explorers from Europe: Bob, Frederik, Jan and Morten. With a decade’s worth of experience inspecting abandoned buildings around the world behind them, the team have published videos of their adventures on a YouTube channel called “Exploring the Unbeaten Path.” An apt name, as few places are as off the beaten track as rural Kazakhstan, where the spaceport was located.
Moreover, the spaceport was not entirely abandoned, meaning that security personnel could apprehend them at any moment. Undeterred by the possibility of spending time in a Kazakh jail, though, the team went ahead with their mission. And the footage they obtained proves the old maxim that high risk brings high rewards.
Their journey to the spaceport involved several days of travel through some spectacularly remote and hazardous terrain. Bordering the nations of Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, landlocked Kazakhstan is home to the Earth’s largest dry steppe region: the Kazakh Steppe, which covers one third of the country. Somewhere in this forbidding landscape, then, was the explorers’ destination.
The Kazakh Steppe is a vast, arid and inhospitable expanse of grasslands and savannas. But owing to the fact that the area is sparsely populated, it makes an ideal setting for a secret spaceport. Not only does the wide open terrain provide an abundance of hard-to-reach hiding places, but it is also perfect for the reception of radio communications from outer space.
The spaceport was, in fact, established by Soviet decree in 1955. Known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the site was actually the world’s very first space launch facility. And what’s more, measuring by 53 miles north-south by 56 miles east-west, the spaceport is an extremely large complex incorporating the world’s largest industrial railway and two airports.
Today, Baikonur is leased to the Russian Federation by the government of Kazakhstan, and it retains a mixture of abandoned and working facilities. In fact, ever since the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, Baikonur has had a monopoly on missions to the International Space Station. The complex, therefore, remains the world’s largest operational spaceport.
Of course, this means that the site is also heavily guarded. And as the explorers approached it from distance, they became increasingly uneasy. First they saw a car with its lights on in the desert. Then they heard three gunshots. “We have no clue what’s going on,” they said in their YouTube video.
Proceeding with “extreme caution,” they covered the final stretch on foot. This proved to be a sensible decision, too, as they soon encountered booby traps in the form of metal spikes protruding from the ground. After all, the last thing you need in the Kazakh Steppe is a flat tire.
The explorers arrived at Baikonur under the cover of darkness. Then, recording their exploits with an infrared camera, they scrambled over a high wall and slipped inside a hangar. And before turning in for the night, exhausted, they caught sight of their prize: a retired Soviet space vehicle, rarely seen firsthand.
“It’s the third bad night we had, I look like a zombie,” said Bob. “But I don’t care, because there’s nothing better than waking up next to this.” Indeed, the sight of a decaying Buran space shuttle parked below must have made their morning.
Developed as a rival to the U.S. space shuttle, the Buran shuttle – whose name translates as “snowstorm” – was a key component of the Soviet space program during the mid-1970s. And like the U.S. space shuttle, it was designed to perform multiple trips to space.
In fact, the Buran shuttle was superior to its U.S. counterpart in several ways. For example, its payload capacity was five tons greater than its American equivalent’s. But despite its technological strengths, it was almost never used. Indeed, the Buran completed its first and only orbital flight on November 15, 1988.
You see, due to a lack of financial resources, the politburo was forced to suspend the Buran program shortly afterwards. The project was officially retired in 1993, two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And it left behind several shuttles in various states of completion, two of which were disassembled in 1995.
Unfortunately, the only Buran with flight experience was destroyed by a falling roof in 2002, leaving just two surviving craft: a prototype and a test model. Today, these precious vehicles are slowly decaying in hangars at Baikonur Cosmodrome – a testament to the never-realized ambitions of the Soviet space program.
But despite the failure of Buran, the behemoth spaceport can claim a number of historic successes. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite from Baikonur. Dispatched to a low Earth orbit, Sputnik 1 broadcast radio pulses to Earth for 21 days until its batteries ran out. And so the space race officially began.
Meanwhile, as the United States scrambled to develop its own space program, the Soviet Union continued to rack up accomplishments thanks to its launch facilities at Baikonur. On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man in space. Then in 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to achieve the feat.
Today, the future of the spaceport is uncertain. In 2004, Kazakhstan and Russia entered into a joint venture to develop a new launch complex at Baikonur for Russian Angara rockets. And while the project stalled in 2010 due to a lack of funds, Kazakhstan still hopes that the first rocket will blast off in 2025. Russia, meanwhile, has begun constructing a new and alternative $3 billion space complex in Siberia.
Of course, Baikonur is a site of exceptional historic significance, meaning huge potential for touristic development; indeed, there is already a small museum at the site. However, the logistical difficulty of getting to the Kazakh Steppe makes it a place of limited appeal. And quite possibly, the entire complex may fall into ruin one day.
Fortunately, however, as long as there are abandoned Soviet facilities, there will always be daring urban explorers who want to document them. And thanks to one team and their aerial drone – which performs beautifully within the hangar’s vast interior – we are able to see one such facility up close.