The Gold Bar re-opens, again

Stoke Newington Church Street is a fairly busy thoroughfare with shops that do a good trade, but there are one or two buildings that seem to keep falling through the net. One is the Gold Bar, at least that was its most recent incarnation, which was open for less than a year before shutting last year after, apparently, a fire.

I noticed while having a pint at the Lion on Tuesday that it is due to become the Baby Bathouse, after its alma mater in the City. So we can all expect nipple tassels and pasties with our pasties in terms of food and drink on offer.

UPDATE: The Hackney Citizen carried the story in the same edition of this month’s paper that reported how Hackney council has banned strip clubs and sex shops in the borough, while allowing those that exist to stay open. Actual sex establishments, ie saunas, massage parlours and the like will be unaffected. Hmmm. So, establishments that allow women to charge for getting naked will be banned while the Baby Bathhouse and it’s ilk, where people pay to see women getting naked, open without comment.

This is sadly typical of the vastly irrational, tribal and ultimately harmful debate that surrounds what have become wrongly known as ‘sex encounter establishments‘, and the result is rarely anything than pointless gesture politics, Victorian throwback morality policing and, all too often, increased danger or even harm for the women working in the industry. The rise of burlesque as a supposedly acceptable alternative only serves to highlight how reasoned argument flies out the door the moment the bras come off.

Buran and Baikonur

Buran's launching tower and gantries at Baikonur, the centre of the Soviet space programme. Photos: English Russia/themysteryworld.com

In the same vein as my visit last year to Chernobyl and Pripyat, here is another abandoned part of the world that bears echoes of the past: these eerie photographs show the giant, hulking remnants of the Buran space orbiter project at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, once the crown jewel of the Soviet space program and the world’s most advanced spacecraft; now only thousands of tons of scrap metal.

The giant apparatus for lifting the Buran shuttle and the rocket that would
carry it into an upright launch position
An abandoned part of the huge Baikonur launch site. Photos: Buran-Energia.com

Buran (Russian: Бура́н, ‘blizzard’) was the Soviet Union’s answer to the US Space Shuttle, which first flew in 1981. Proposed in 1975, it did not take its final shape until 1978, by which time NASA’s project was entering its final stages.

At a glance Buran appears physically similar to the Shuttle — Soviet scientists had come to the same conclusions regarding how to propel a re-usable orbital craft into space using booster rockets, and the laws of physics, then and now, apply equally to all nations. But the project team had taken a different approach – while NASA brought rocket boosters, a central fuel tank and the rocket engines on the Shuttle together as an integral system, the Soviets separated them into Energia, a multipurpose rocket launcher, and Buran, the orbiter.


Buran and Energia on the launchpad, 1988

Energia was to be the USSR’s new booster rocket platform to replace the giant and unwieldy N1 rocket that, while comparable to NASA’s successful Saturn V, suffered major engineering setbacks — four rockets were destroyed during test launches — and was eventually scrapped in 1974 at a cost of 2.5 billion roubles. With the sacking of the scientists leading the N1 team, a new approach was adopted to design a powerful and largely re-usable rocket system that could carry into orbit loads such as satellites or modules for the Mir space station in addition to Buran. Unlike NASA’s design the central Energia rocket could carry its own payload, not just fuel.

Buran, unlike the Space Shuttle, had jet engines like those on an aircraft, not rocket engines, and so was capable of controlled atmospheric flight, while NASA’s design glided down to Earth using only its re-entry speed. With less space taken up by engines and propellant, Buran could also carry more cargo, withstand higher heat intensities during re-entry and, extraordinarily, could even fly un-manned on automatic pilot. A scientist from the Molniya Company, a contractor working on Buran, early on in the project remarked drily on the comparison between the two:

“It is necessary to remember that Buran was created more than five years after the Space Shuttle. It has allowed us to apply more modern methods of designing, materials, manufacturing technologies, test methods, and has enabled our designers to take into account all foreign miscalculations and mistakes.

“Certainly, while over the years the Space Shuttle has had numerous updates, it has a main advantage compared to Buran: it flies.”

The most ambitious Soviet space program of all, between 1975 and 1993 more than one million people, 1,286 companies and 86 government departments were involved on the project at a cost of 16 billion roubles.

The giant distances across which the USSR spanned posed a problem in itself – the Cosmodrome launch site is in Kazakhstan, the Yuzhnoye rocket foundry is in Ukraine, and a great deal of other manufacturing was located around Moscow. The answer they came to was the same as that proposed by NASA: to piggy back Buran and pieces of Energia on to a much larger, stronger aircraft.

The result were two huge aircraft – the first was VM-T, a highly modified transport version of the Myasishchev M-4/’Bison’ 1950s bomber rebuilt to carry loads of 50 tons.

The 3M-T, renamed the VM-T 'Atlas' after designer Vladimir Myasishchev
The 3M-T, renamed the VM-T 'Atlas' after designer Vladimir Myasishchev

 

The VM-T 'Atlas' carrying parts for Energia

It was ready in time to ferry the Energia rocket stages and Buran itself to Baikonur, while its successor — the even bigger Antanov An-225 Mriya (Ukrainian: Мрія, ‘dream’) — was years later.

The An-225 is the largest aircraft ever built, with a load capacity of 250 tons. While only one was ever made, it is still in service with Ukrainian Anatov Airlines for the kind of cargo lifts that absolutely have to have the biggest plane in the world.

An-225, the largest aircraft ever built

In October 1988 Buran-Energia finally took off for the stars. With the manual control and life support systems not yet finished, the decision was made to carry out the first flight entirely on automatic — a unique and extraordinary feat, which earned Buran a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first, and until NASA’s Boeing X-37’s maiden flight last year, the only spacecraft to do so. Lift-off and separation from Energia went without a hitch, and Buran orbited the Earth twice for 205 minutes before a practically pixel-perfect landing at Baikonur only a few feet from its designated landing point, without any human intervention. The onboard computer even detected the 40mph crosswinds at the landing strip and made the last minute decision to land from the opposite direction — correctly, but in the process no doubt taking years off the engineers nervously watching.

 

And what has become of all this technology, billions of roubles and the efforts of the finest technical and scientific minds the Soviet Union produced?

A Buran prototype cut up for scrap

After the breakup of the USSR, the project’s funding evaporated. Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, suffered from the same economic hardships that faced the rest of the disintegrating Union. In 2002, OK-1, the only Buran orbiter to have made a space flight, and its Energia rocket were destroyed when the ill-maintained hanger at Baikonur collapsed, killing seven workmen.

The collapsed hanger that destroyed the only functioning Buran

Several mock-ups and test models remain at Baikonur Cosmodrome museum, including one which visitors can clamber inside and sit at the controls. Others that were under construction when the Soviet Union collapsed have been dismantled or unceremoniously dumped, like OK-2, which now sits without wings or tailfin in a carpark in suburban Moscow.

Buran mock-up at Baikonur Museum

The flight test model OK-GLI, equipped with functioning engines, appeared at several airshows around the world before being sold and brought by boat from Bahrain in 2008 to the Speyer Technik Museum in Germany.

The Energia program ended, but the booster rockets lived on as the Zenit launcher, which performs space launches for commercial customers to this day. The rocket engines, the efficient RD-170 and its derivatives, have become a great Ukrainian export and power Lockheed-Martin’s Atlas V in the US, South Korea’s Naro-1 and the future Russian Angara rocket program.

The An-225 is still used as a cargo carrier, seen delivering huge 150-ton electricity generators to the tsunami-struck Samoan Islands in 2008.

One of the two remaining VM-T Atlas carriers, complete with Energia cargo module strapped to its back, is being converted into a tourist attraction to transport passengers 60 miles into the atmosphere to experience zero gravity for a few minutes. The first flights are slated for 2012.

Buran’s technology has not gone to waste, even if the hardware has: the techniques used in the heat tiles for Buran are now used to insulate Russian housing. You can even find original tiles on eBay now and again, ‘liberated’ by enterprising and cash-strapped looters.

This month marks 25 years since Challenger, the second NASA Space Shuttle, exploded shortly after take off, killing all seven astronauts onboard. The disaster, and that of the loss of the first shuttle, Columbia, in 2003 threw NASA into a tailspin, with questions asked at the highest levels what the organisation’s huge budgets were for. Questions and criticisms NASA to this day struggles to shake off, and the results of the organisation’s work apparently taking on progressively more military dimensions as a result as budgets are pulled.

It is 50 years ago this year that Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for the first time, and more than 40 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Yet the high ideals of spaceflight and exploration have foundered. Political will, vision and hard cash generated by the Cold War has given way to navel gazing and the commercialisation of the space programmes, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The NASA Space Shuttle program ends this year, with Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis making their final flights into the heavens in February, April and June respectively. The replacement, Project Constellation, was cancelled by Obama last year, despite his pronouncements on the importance of space. Despite the nascent beginnings of a private spaceflight and space tourism industry, the lack of viable launch vehicles could endanger the International Space Station – the most expensive object ever built at somewhere over $100 billion dollars, and our only manned ‘off-world’ presence.


There have been enormous technological leaps since the 1960s — look at how powerful, cheap and ubiquitous home computers have become, yet the Space Shuttles contain Intel 8086 16-bit processors, decades older than those found in a bog-standard PC, and in fact similar to that used in the original IBM PC.

Apparently neither the will nor the way to project humankind beyond our wet ball of rock three from the sun has kept pace. Despite the resources, the scientific discoveries, and the potential for not life-changing, but species-changing events and knowledge to be found beyond the skies, in a world of ever-increasing costs mired in national, ethnic and political squabbles, the dreams of science fiction seem destined to remain just that.

Signs of Life: Pripyat and Chernobyl

 

Pripyat, a city near the Dniepr river in northern Ukraine, was built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, just three kilometres away. Almost 50,000 people lived and worked there.

When Chernobyl reactor no. 4 exploded just after 1am on April 26, 1986, the 1,000 ton concrete containment lid over the reactor was blown aside like a paperweight, blasting out ionising radiation and chunks of radioactive debris. Exposed to the air, the graphite and fuel rods inside the reactor to burst into flames.

Despite dangerous levels of radiation, it was more than 36 hours before the Soviet leadership decided to evacuate the city. By then, sixteen weddings had taken place in Pripyat, and the firemen who attended the fire that first night had begun to die. Men, women and children were told to take only a bag for a few nights, that they were being evacuated as a precaution. They would never return. Pripyat was abandoned, a 30 kilometre exclusion zone was established around the site, and a further 300,000 people in affected parts of Ukraine and Belarus were resettled.

In the days and weeks after the disaster, tens of thousands of men – volunteers, young army conscripts, helicopter pilots, firemen, even miners brought in to reinforce tunnels under the reactor – fought to extinguish the fires and clean up the radioactive debris. With only the most basic protective equipment, they were known as ‘liquidators’.

In the West we know it as the ‘Chernobyl disaster’ or ‘accident’, but in Ukraine and Belarus it is known as ‘the Catastrophe’. It is very difficult to gauge the lasting effects of Chernobyl, made more difficult by incomplete records, a mobile population, conflicting findings and political stonewalling. But Pripyat, empty for years, has become an unlikely tourist destination, the setting for computer games, music videos and films. People now walk among the ghosts.

Through interviews and photographs taken in March 2010, a little of Pripyat’s story is revealed through photographs and the words of those that lived and worked there.

With many thanks to Evgeney Gagushkin, Lyudmila Starodubtseva, Jeanne Rumiantseva and Roman, and Linda Walker of the Chernobyl Children’s Project who made this possible.

 

 

Welcome to Pripyat
Welcome to Pripyat

The city sign on the road to Pripyat (При́пять in Russian). Flowers and wreaths are a common sight on the statues, signs and plaques that remain in the zone. They have become memorials to what was lost – the city itself; two-thirds of the population were graduates, Pripyat represented the pinnacle of Soviet modernity and achievement.

“I was maybe three years old. There were many children born there, it was a beautiful, happy city. Schools, swimming pools, cinema, everything there was the best. When people came from Moscow to Pripyat, they used to say we lived in a resort. It was a very clean city, designed by a very good architect, built according to modern town planning theories, using the latest designs.”
– Roman

“We lived in a high-rise flat near the centre, by the culture palace near the main square. After graduation in St Petersburg we got to Pripyat in 1975. We had three bedrooms, everything we needed, all mod cons. We lived there for eight years. it was the best place in the world.”
– Lyudmila

“Once we saw the damage I was depressed, because the no one else realised the extent of the problem. I realised that no one would ever be coming back. I realised there was no hope for Pripyat.”
– Evgeney

 

 

Monument to the Liquidators
Monument to the Liquidators

When Pripyat was built a statue of Prometheus, the god that gave man the secret of fire, was erected in the city centre. It seemed apt, with nuclear power representing man’s mastery of nature’s most powerful forces.  After the accident, it was moved to a new home by the Chernobyl Exclusion Area administration offices, outside the city. Like this monument to the liquidators only a few hundred feet from the reactor, today the only statues inside Pripyat commemorate the brave and the dead.

“Since we worked at the power station, when we were called to clear up we did what we had to do, we did our duty. We realised that the consequences of not doing it were terrible. We realised it was very serious and that we could die from the radiation, but it was no use thinking about it.

“We were ordered to stop the chain reaction in reactor no. 3 and we did. The pilots flew sortie after sortie in helicopters because it had to be done, but it killed them all.

“The fire was put out on the first day, but the reactor core was giving off such heat and light that it seemed as if it was still on fire. You could see it at night, bright, many different colours. Like an electric fireplace, glowing, pulsing with light, all the colours of the rainbow. It was beautiful.”
– Evgeney

 

 


Abandoned apartments

One of the tallest buildings in Pripyat, it was from here that people watched the multicoloured plume of burning blue, yellow and green fire from the reactor light up the night sky, unaware they were receiving a potentially lethal dose of radiation.

Throughout Eastern Europe, symbols of the Soviet Union and statues of Lenin or Stalin have been torn down. But in Pripyat, where the year is still 1986, the beady eye of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin still watches visitors to the city, and the wreathed hammer, sickle and star of the USSR still adorns buildings.

 

 

Interloper

Interloper

Not everything in Pripyat remains the same – like the trees that force themselves up through the concrete or the tourists that come to gawp, the present day forces itself upon the city, acquiring 21st century graffiti unimaginable during Soviet times.

Chernobyl has become a major source of tourist income for Ukraine, with proceeds funding a government ministry dedicated to the post-Chernobyl clean-up.

Former residents were allowed to return to collect belongings in the mid-90’s, and guided tours began a few years later. Widespread looting of metal, wood and electrics has been a problem for many years. For a decade after the disaster the city retained a Marie Celeste sense of abandonment – tables laid for dinner, hospitals with beds still unmade. Now the buildings are largely stripped, empty and decaying.

 

 

Dark windows
Dark Windows

Pripyat’s first and only supermarket – due to open on May 1st 1986, it never did. Signs still mark the frozen section, and trollies still clog what is left of the aisles.

 

 

School's out
School’s out

One of 15 abandoned schools in Pripyat, still strewn with books, musical equipment, toys and propaganda – not least the banners painted for May Day parades but never used, the impact of the images of illustrious Soviet leaders fading like the paint’s colours.

 

 

Sporting heroes
Sporting heroes

 

 

Routine
Routine

Few schoolchildren during the 1980s could boast such familiarity and experience with gasmasks.

 

 

Library
Library

 

 

Distractions
Distractions
The fairground big wheel and dodgem cars, ready to carry off those celebrating Workers Day (May Day), but still waiting 25 years later.

 

Distractions

 

 

Classroom/Spectacle
Classroom/Spectacle

So many curious eyes have passed through School No. 4, so many photographers looking for a lasting image, the sense grows that what you see is not the ruined city as it was left 24 years ago, but instead what those unnamed and departed visitors wanted to see, by means of any props found to hand: gas masks, pictures of Lenin, colourful children’s books in bold cyrillic, ragged dolls.

 

 

Signs of Life
Signs of Life
In truth, Pripyat is not a ghost town – around 4,000 people work in the exclusion zone monitoring the decaying reactor, radiation levels and wildlife. A new city, Slavutych, was built outside the zone after the disaster to house the workers, as Chernobyl’s remaining reactors were still producing power until 2000, when the plant was shut down as part of an agreement with the EU.

Some workers don’t relish the commute from outside the exclusion zone, however, and set up home inside the small town of Chernobyl from where the power plant takes its name, further than Pripyat from the reactor but still inside the zone.

 

 

Lyudmila and Evgeney
Lyudmila and Evgeney

Lyudmila and Evgeney lived in Pripyat. Lyudmila was evacuated while Evgeney, a technician at the plant, stayed behind as a liquidator, and continued to work at the plant until its closure.

“We were working on the third reactor because we were scared that it could be destroyed as well, a chain reaction. The structure was badly damaged, and it was a very thin wall between one reactor and the other. We had to make hundreds of trips to the reactor to cool it down with sand, it took five days to cool down the fuel rods. Only one man had a dosimeter [to measure radiation] and he was crying ‘faster faster faster!’. There were thousands of rads [unit of radiation] in there, we had to run back and forth, eleven of us, wearing only cotton boiler suits.

“Three died there. Others have got various diseases. There are disabilities that can’t be seen, I have high blood pressure and headaches, there have been organic changes in the brain. Lyudmila had an operation in 1985 to treat cancer, after working at the reactor.

“We have a son, 28, he has thyroid problems, He was eight years old when he was diagnosed with a disease that leaves white spots on skin, checkups revealed the thyroid problems too. He went to Cuba on the exchange program for children of Chernobyl.

“When the reactor exploded the concrete cover deflected the stream of neutrons into the forest. But it could have deflected it the other way, towards Pripyat. No one would have survived.”

– Evgeney

 

“The level of radiation was so strong the pine forest turned reddy orange, it supposed to be green but it became orange in only six hours.

“After we were evacuated we were afraid for our friends and family who were still there. We tried to call them but the lines were dead, there was no news, no information. Everyone had to go to May Day celebrations – in Minsk, in Kiev, even with the radiation from Chernobyl spreading in the air we had celebrations with all the children and families out on the streets. The bigwigs in the Communist Party were there showing their devotion with their families, despite knowing the dangers.

“Though there was no official information, people were trying to leave or get to safety, whatever they thought safety was. There was panic. In the Soviet Union, when you hear nothing, you know it’s bad.

“What happened, happened. No matter how the party misbehaved, they also helped people, they were helped to resettle and recover, given flats and houses and jobs.

“We went back only once, in 1995. We had an opportunity to go there and we were curious. The grass grown tall, the place was dirty and destroyed. I didn’t want to go back. Too many memories.

“Before the catastrophe and after the catastrophe – it is like before the war and after the war. No one will ever forget, nothing is ever the same again.”

– Lyudmila