A factory floor for flights of fancy

A worker at Energia's factory north of Moscow assembles components for a future spacecraft.
A worker at Energia's factory north of Moscow assembles components for a future spacecraft.
/ Source: msnbc.com

On Energia’s factory floor, just north of Moscow, the disappointments of the past share space with the dreams of the future.

After putting on white lab coats and cloth booties, you are ushered into the rocket company’s testing facility. It is built like an airplane hangar, with train tracks running through the middle of it for transporting spacecraft.

On the far side of the hangar is the hulking shell of a Soviet space shuttle — a near-carbon copy of the American version. This particular shuttle was never intended for space. Instead, it was used for testing hydraulic and electrical systems. The real Buran shuttle, now mothballed in a warehouse at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, took only one remote-controlled flight in 1988 before the program ran out of money.

Strangely, the Buran mockup in Korolyov is the only thing visitors are expressly forbidden to photograph.

To the right, scaffolding rises several stories high. Within the latticework, workers are outfitting a Progress cargo ship that will someday carry supplies to International Space Station Alpha.

Mechanics work on parts for the space station’s docking module, which looks like a beer keg on its side — only this keg is taller than a fraternity brother.

To the left, crisscrossed by platforms and catwalks, are multimillion-dollar copies of the Russian space industry’s crown jewels: the Zvezda service module, which serves as Alpha’s main living quarters; and several modules of the Mir space station. These doppelgangers are used for testing and troubleshooting: When equipment is added to the real thing in space, the same equipment goes on the test version.

Energia’s Mir duplicate isn’t used much anymore. It may one day be sent to a museum.

“When Mir comes down, maybe we’ll send this one up in its place,” one of the guides jokes.