A rowing boat crew takes a break and admires the 'Buran', Russian space shuttle turned restaurant in Moscow's Gorky Park, 12 April 1996. After the medical tests the visitor of the restaurant passes through the airlock into the ancient space shuttle and for 45 minutes one floats, eats cosmonaut food and glides over the Earth's surface on the banks of the Moskova river. Photo by Vladimir Mashatin Copyright AFP 2000
The Buran was launched unmanned on November 15, 1988, from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan, made two orbits of the earth and landed successfully three hours later. This first flight, part of an intended 14.5 billion dollar programme, was also the last.
Mikhail Gorbachev, president at the time, did not even watch the launch, which had been planned over 12 years. The Buran programme was frozen in the early 90s.
Buran was capable of transporting a payload of 30 tonnes, the equivalent of the capability of several Progress ships, used to supply the Mir space station. Like the American shuttle, it would have been used to place satellites in orbit and to bring them back to earth.
The 105-tonne Buran, 36 metres long and 25 metres wide, was also designed to carry a crew of ten people for 30 days.
A dozen shuttles were built for the Buran project, but only one could fly in space, the rest having been designed to test the ship's systems.
One of these training vessels was brought to Moscow from Baikonur and leased to a private company in 1995. It was then installed in a theme park.
The shuttle was converted into a flight simulator with 30 movable seats inside capable of giving the illusion of weightlessness, accompanied by a cinema screen showing Buran's only launch.
"Soon, tourists in Moscow will have three unavoidable sights to see, the Kremlin, the Bolshoi and Buran," said Semion Lvov in 1996, one of the organisers of the project, which soon ran into severe financial prolems.
Aramais Martirossian, who has been running the Buran project since 1998 and is in charge of the Kosmopark theme park, said that 1.25 million dollars had been invested in the project, but that some of the money had been "stolen" by dishonest managers.
At present the Buran project makes scarcely any money. "The number of visitors is falling every year," Martirossian lamented.
In February, 1999, a clinic used for giving three-minute tests to tourists, a shortened version of the medicals undergone by real cosmonauts, was destroyed by a fire.
Space meals, like those eaten by cosmonauts on Mir, are no longer served and the simulated space flight now lasts 20 minutes instead of 40.
To try to raise funds, Kosmopark recently offered Buran for sale on the Internet for three million dollars.
"In fact it was a publicity stunt. We did not actually have the right to sell Buran, which belongs to the state," said Martirossian, adding however that Kosmopark company, which is 44 percent state-owned, is ready to sell off its 56 percent private participation.
The fate of the only Buran that ever flew in space is even more murky. With its huge launcher Energuya, weighing 2,000 tonnes and with a diametre of eight metres, it is resting in a hangar in Baikonur and may never take to space again.
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