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The Russian Space Shuttle That Never Was

In a giant hangar in remote Kazakhstan, two Russian space shuttles that never made it into orbit are collecting dust.


It's no coincidence that the design of these decaying Soviet space shuttles looks familiar — the KGB successfully stole the U.S. shuttle plans in the 1970s and 80s. Except for one unmanned test flight, the Soviet shuttles never made it into space. The program was officially canceled in 1993, a victim of budget cutbacks in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Perhaps it is the shuttles' resemblance to their stateside cousins that makes these pictures of them slowly disintegrating so poignant. But it is also the prick of unfulfilled potential. Building the shuttles and their gargantuan support buildings was an enormous undertaking — and they barely made it off the ground. 

Above: A shuttle test vehicle, front, and "Ptichka," or "Little Bird," the second space shuttle orbiter built for the Soviet Buran space program, sit in a hangar at the Russian-leased cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2016. 

The Ptichka was 95 percent complete and was scheduled for flight when the program was canceled. 

Photos by Dietmar Eckell

Dietmar Eckell

The Buran program was planned in part as a space ferry to link up with the Mir space station. 

Intelligence officials told NBC News in 1997 that the Soviets had saved “billions” on their shuttle program by using online spying.


Dietmar Eckell

An Energia rocket designed to carry the shuttle into space has remained on its dynamic test pad for more than 25 years. 

Dietmar Eckell

The building enclosing the rocket is more than 550-feet tall. 

Dietmar Eckell

The Buran shuttle that made it to orbit, an unmanned flight of 200 minutes in 1988, was destroyed in 2002 in the collapse of an assembly hall near this facility. 

Dietmar Eckell

The abandoned launch pad 110 at the Baikonur cosmodrome was the scene of four failed lunar launches and the successful launch of the unmanned Buran shuttle in 1988. 

Dietmar Eckell

Buran is Russian for "Blizzard."

Dietmar Eckell

A decaying building sits near deserted ground control stations, background, at the cosmodrome.

Dietmar Eckell's shuttle photos are part of a broader project by the German photographer documenting abandoned manmade relics as they melt into the landscape. Called "Restwert," the German word for residual value, Eckell says the project underlines "the temporality of manmade objects, human endeavors and visions by capturing them embedded in grand, reclaiming nature." 

More Dietmar Eckell photos on NBC 

Rest in Peace: Wartime Relics Reclaimed by the Land and Sea

Eerie Plane Wrecks Contain Forgotten Stories of Survival

Dietmar Eckell
The launching of the energia rocket carrying the unmanned soviet space shuttle buran at baikonur in kazakhstan, ussr, november 15, 1988.

An Energia rocket carries the unmanned Buran space shuttle on Nov. 15, 1988.
Sovfoto / UIG via Getty Images