Site 254 in Baikonur
A general view of a cavernous processing facility at Site 254 at the turn of the 21st century. The orbiter processing building, MIK OK, is on the foreground, and the assembly building for the Energia rocket, known as MIK RN and located at Site 112, is on the background, to the left. After a decade of economic troubles in the 1990s, the building did receive a fresh coat of blue paint, losing its apocalyptic look.
As its number suggests, Site 254 is the newest facility of Baikonur Cosmodrome. Located in the very center of Baikonur, the site also became the heart of the cosmodrome's piloted space flight operations in the 21st century.
The main building at Site 254 was built during the 1970s and 1980s, specifically for pre-flight processing of the Buran orbiter. The structure was made out of panels attached to a metal framework. Known as the Orbiter Assembly and Testing Facility, or MIK OK, the building is 222 meters long, 132 meters wide and 34 meters tall (107)*, covering an area of around 72,000 square meters. The building's main hallways are 48 meters wide and 30 meters tall. The facility was reportedly designed to handle three Buran orbiters simultaneously. (77) The main processing area is wrapped on three sides by a four-floor complex of test rooms with the total of 4,800 square meters of office space.
Inside, the MIK OK building is subdivided into a central entrance hall and four specialized areas:
All these rooms were interconnected with 30 by 24-meter doors, enabling transfer of a fully assembled orbiter.
OKI test firing site
Early on in the Buran program, developers rejected an option of testing the winged orbiter's propulsion system, known as ODU, on a dedicated stand, choosing instead to test-fire all of the ship's engines right on the vehicle itself. On November 21, 1978, the council of chief designers, which oversaw the program, picked a special area at the technical complex 11P592 as a test site for Buran's engine firings. Giving explosive nature of the work, an outdoor test site was positioned few hundred meters from the main processing facility at Site 254. Known as OKI for Russian "Firing Control Tests," the facility was equipped with its own set of fueling systems, supplying benzene-based fuel, liquid oxygen oxidizer and helium to the orbiter. Engine tests at the OKI site were expected not only during the development of the vehicle, but also as a routine procedure before flights. The orbiter would also be towed to the OKI site after each flight for cleansing of its propulsion plumbing from remnants of toxic substances and other hazardous post-flight operations. (112, 76)
Along with testing of the orbiter's engine, the OKI facility would be used to check the performance of the spacecraft's auxiliary power unit, VSU, which supplies hydraulic power to the vehicle and for tests of communications between the ship and its mission control via satellite.
Upon cancellation of the Energia-Buran program, one of the test versions of the orbiter was parked at the OKI site. Baikonur's officials were considering moving the ship into town as a monument, however, a low bridge of the Moscow-Tashkent railroad, which cuts off technical facilities of the cosmodrome from its residential area presented an obstacle. Eventually, the spacecraft was moved to the grounds of the Baikonur museum at Site 2.
Site 254 in the post-Soviet period
During economic storms of 1990s, RKK Energia, a primary contractor in the Russian manned space program, managed to preserve most precious assets of the Energia-Buran era in Baikonur by moving Soyuz and Progress pre-launch operations into the former Buran processing building at Site 254. The work space for processing Progress cargo ships was inaugurated at Site 254 in 1995. RKK Energia also used the same building to process its Block D upper stages flying on the Proton rocket and Yamal communications satellites.
Following the manned Soyuz spacecraft, all pre-launch operations of Russian space crews were also moved to Site 254, along with elaborate launch day rituals. Here, Russian cosmonauts and their foreign colleagues would don their space suits and conduct leak checks in the famous "aquarium," separated by a large glass wall from a crowd of space officials and journalists. A short chat with VIPs would usually follow spacesuit checks.
Once ready, the Soyuz crew would walk outside MIK OK for a traditional ceremonial report to the head of the Russian State Commission overseeing the launch. In a military fashion, the Soyuz commander would declare his crew ready for the mission and the State Commission chairman would wish cosmonauts a good flight, as would a cheering crowd of well-wishers. The crew would then board the bus for a ride to the launch pad.
Once the bus is out of the view, it would reportedly make a short stop in the midst of a steppe. Following another custom dating back to Gagarin's pioneering flight, cosmonauts would unzip their suits and relieve themselves on a tire of their bus, a rumor has it. (So much for all those leak checks less than a half an hour earlier!) What female members of Soyuz crews think about this "tradition" remains a mystery.
Soyuz MS-07 is being prepared to enter the anechoic chamber at Site 254 in November 2017.
The processing building at Site 254 also had its own echoless chamber designed for testing of the Buran's radio systems. It was later used for similar tests of the Soyuz spacecraft.
The 17T523 vacuum complex with a total volume of 1,515 cubic meters was built at Hall 103 of Site 254 for checking large components of the pneumatic and hydraulic systems of the Buran orbiter for leaks. After the end of the program, the chamber was upgraded and received a designation 17T523M. It was used for routine testing of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and also all the modules of the Russian Segment on the International Space Station, including the Zvezda Service Module, SM, the Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, the Poisk Mini-Research Module, MIM2, The Rassvet Mini-Research Module, MIM1 and the Yamal communications satellite series.
Another round of renovations of the vacuum chamber was completed in 2016, which included the installation of the new vacuum pumps, insulation, cooling hardware and digital control complex. The body of its chamber and its loading tray also underwent restoration.
The delivery of the Nauka module to Baikonur Cosmodrome in August 2020 marked the beginning of the launch campaign for the 20-ton spacecraft. It was the first time in two decades that the Russian personnel in Kazakhstan had to work with the a space station module of this size and complexity. To complete the task, a dedicated preparation facility was deployed inside the former Buran processing building at Site 254.
The Buran engine firing pad at Site 254 on the right and MZK fueling complex at Site 112A on the left.
At the turn of the 21st century a prototype of the Buran orbiter was left stranded at the OKI test firing pad at Site 254. It would be eventually towed to the center's museum at Site 2.
With the collapse of the USSR, Site 254 and surrounding area was decaying quickly.
Soyuz crew members complete suiting up operations in the room known as "aquarium," for its large glass wall, which enables numerous VIPs and journalists to watch the operation in the guaranteed area. Click to enlarge.
Spacesuit pressure checks for a Soyuz crew member inside MIK OK on the day of the launch.
A processing bay inside MIK OK at Site 254 with three work sites for the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. Click to enlarge.
The Progress cargo ship is being prepared for launch at Site 254. Note a technician half way through the hatch of the vehicle's top cargo section.
Engineers work with documentation during the preparation of the Progress cargo ship.
Technicians work on solar panels of the Progress cargo ship in the MIK OK building.
An array of lights is used to create an "artificial sun" testing spacecraft solar panels.
The preparation of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft is conducted by RKK Energia personnel.
A worker uses wired controls to drive a spacecraft transporter inside MIK OK. Click to enlarge.
A mural on the interior wall of the processing area at Site 254 quotes Sergei Korolev: "Road to Stars is Open." Click to enlarge.
A vacuum chamber inside the MIK OK building at Site 254. Click to enlarge.
Doors connecting five bays of MIK OK are 30 meters tall.