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Culture

Historic Shuttle Swaps Arab Desert for German Museum

A year ago, German journalists stumbled upon an old Soviet space shuttle in the harbor of Bahrain. The historic find is now to be shipped to Germany where it will take pride of place in a technology museum.

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Ready for take-off, this time to Germany

It was a television crew from Düsseldorf that first came across the Soviet-era relic in Bahrain on the Persian Gulf last year. The German journalists apparently found the Russian shuttle "Buran" (Snowstorm) stranded in the massive harbor area of the desert nation.

"It was lying there for a long time without anybody showing any interest in it," said TV producer Chris Maier, who stumbled upon it following a tip-off.

A Soviet prestige project

Buran in Baikonur

The multi-purpose launch rocket "Energia" with the space shuttle "Buran" before take-off in Russia in 1988

The Soviet project "Buran" began in 1976. The aim was to develop a reusable space shuttle and thus technologically keep pace with the United States.

Physically, the "Buran" even strongly resembled the American "Space Shuttle." The orbital glider was meant to carry up to 14 people or up to 30 tons, a fact that made it superior to US shuttles at least in this one aspect. In addition, the Soviet space shuttle also differed from US models because it could be completely operated by remote control.

The Soviets completed a first model of the "Buran" in 1980, which embarked on its first and only orbital flight on November 15, 1988. The unmanned test ended according to plan after two circuits around the earth and the shuttle landed safely back on earth. But, four years later it was destroyed when the roof of an assembly hangar at the Russian Baikonur space center collapsed.

Andreas Schütz, space expert at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne said the rediscovery of the still-preserved Russian space shuttle had created a stir in space circles.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Russian space agency faced a cash crunch. The Russians couldn't afford a second large space program in addition to their "Sojus" rescue capsules, said Schütz. The "Buran" project was officially called off in 1993.

From Bahrain to Germany

Buran kommt nach Museum Sinsheim

The Buran

The machine discovered in Bahrain is believed to be the "Buran" 002 model, one of the shuttle's four prototypes. It is outfitted with its own engine and completed 25 test flights within the earth's atmosphere during its working life.

The "Buran" 002's odyssey included a trip to Sydney, Australia, where it was displayed within the framework of the Olympic Games. A planned exhibition in Bahrain two years later was scrapped due to financial wrangling. Since then the orbiter has been gathering dust in the port of the Gulf nation, forgotten by the world.

After its rediscovery last year, a German businessman indicated his willingness to display the "Buran" at worldwide events. Those plans have also been dropped.

But it now looks as if the space shuttle's final resting place will be in Germany. The Car and Technology Museum in the southern German town of Sinsheim has confirmed that it signed a deal to buy the "Buran" with the shuttle's owner, the Russian space company NPO Molniya in Moscow. A spokeswoman at the museum said the price for the shuttle had reached a six-digit figure in Euros.

Logistical challenges

Buran Russlands Sternenstraße in Baikonur ist holprig geworden

The space shuttle "Buran" languishes in the space center in Kazakhstan, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union

Meanwhile, the museum in Sinsheim is still clarifying the remaining logistical questions. The transport of the massive shuttle, which is likely to take place by sea, is expected to take several weeks. The new owners say it won't happen until the end of the year.

The museum already has some experience with bulky exhibits. A model of the supersonic passenger jet "Concorde" as well as of the supersonic aircraft Tupelow TU-144, among other things, already rank among its more spectacular exhibits. The "Buran" from Bahrain is expected to be a valuable addition to the museum's attractions.