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Let’s make a deal: Entrepreneur wants to trade Buran shuttle for a skull

The original Buran shuttle, which flew one time, is photographed in the year 2000 two years before its destruction.
Enlarge / The original Buran shuttle, which flew one time, is photographed in the year 2000 two years before its destruction.

Scott Peterson/Liaison

Tensions are continuing to escalate between a Kazakh businessman and Russian space officials over the fate of the second Buran-class orbiter, named Burya.

The businessman, Dauren Musa, claims ownership of Burya. This was the second orbiter built as part of the Soviet Buran program, which aimed to produce a fleet of space shuttle-like vehicles four decades ago. At the time of the program’s cancellation in 1993 due to a lack of funding, the Burya vehicle was deemed to be more than 95 percent completed for flight operations.

The first Buran shuttle made just a single, unpiloted flight to orbit in 1988. However, this vehicle was destroyed in 2002 after the roof of the hangar where it was stored at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan collapsed. The loss of the original Buran makes Burya all the more valuable to Russian space officials.

Burya is located in a separate facility at the Baikonur cosmodrome. After it was vandalized by graffiti artists this spring, Russian officials, including head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin, became increasingly concerned about its future.

Musa, however, does not simply want to give the vehicle back to Russia. In September, reports emerged that he would only return Burya to Russia in exchange for the skull of the last Kazakh Khan, a man named Kenesary Kasymov. He has emerged as a hero in modern-day Kazakhstan for leading a 10-year struggle opposing the Russian Empire’s attempts to colonize the region during the 1840s. A rival ultimately beheaded Kenesary Kasymov in 1847 and sent his head to Russia.

Now, Musa wants the skull back, and he is willing to trade Burya for it. In an interview published Friday in a Russian language newspaper in Kazakhstan, Musa escalated his rhetoric. He said he would definitely not allow the shuttle to be returned to Russia for nothing, emphasizing the value of Burya as a bargaining chip by noting that it is the most valuable Russian artifact in Kazakhstan. He emphasized his determination, saying, “It is not water that flows in our veins, but blood, and it has the scent of wormwood.” Wormwood is a common plant in Kazakhstan and a key ingredient of absinthe.

The skull of Kenesary Kasymov may be in St. Petersburg, Russia. Or it may not. Russian officials say they don’t know where it is located.

So how did Musa obtain title to the Burya vehicle? This is where the story becomes slightly murky. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had to lease the Kazakhstan-based Baikonur spaceport from Kazakhstan. Over time, some Russian space companies operating there sold off assets as funding became tight.

The prime contractor for the Buran program was a company called RSS Energia, the biggest contractor for the Russian space program. According to NASASpaceflight.com, a subsidiary of Energia was created to manage its properties at Baikonur. In 2004, this company transferred the two Buran vehicles to RSE Infrakos, which in turn turned them over to the Russian-Kazakh company JSC KRISP Aelita. In 2011, the company’s shares were bought by Musa. He renamed the company RSC Baikonur.

The ownership of Burya remains somewhat in doubt, however. Kazakhstan government officials have asserted their ownership of the assets of RSC Baikonur. The matter is being litigated in court in Kazakhstan.

Musa, in the interview published Friday, said these legal proceedings have been going on for three years. If necessary, he said, he would bring the matter to international court to expose the nature of the bureaucracy in Kazakhstan and its court system. For now, then, Burya‘s fate remains buried in court filings.

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