The Girl Who Broke Into a Russian Rocket Engine Testing Facility

Lana Sator relaxing at the Khemki facility

Of all the places you wouldn’t want to get caught sneaking into, an operational Russian defense installation that tests and produces liquid-propelled rocket engines would have to be pretty high up on the list. Still, that didn’t deter intrepid explorer Lana Sator and her friends, who made not one but five sorties into the NPO Energomash military hardware facility just outside Moscow.

The sci-fi looking base of a test firing tower

In the world of urban exploration, investigating abandoned military installations is not uncommon. However, although they are often restricted, these empty installations certainly don’t have the same high-level security and restricted access that a functioning defense factory has – or at least, should have.

And the lack of security is even more remarkable when you learn more about the history of the facility and the key role it has played in the development of high-pressure rocket engines. In fact, the Khimki site is one of the world’s leading producers of liquid-fueled rocket engines.

Bright lights lead the explorers to an emergency staircase.

Sator and her group came across the surprisingly unmanned fence of the NPO Energomash plant during an autumn walk around Khimki Forest, northwest of Moscow. Normally, this is the kind of potential access point you’d anticipate being well guarded and protected from intruders. Instead, the fence was deserted and in a state of disrepair.

The looming test firing towers

Unbelievably, the “rickety wooden fence” was even gaping with holes in some sections. Also, there weren’t any signs to warn potential intruders that the site was off-limits. Presented with such an unexpected opportunity, the curious group of explorers simply couldn’t resist entering the compound and taking a look around.

Sator poses with a non-functioning camera.

The intruders found no sign of human life on the premises. There weren’t even any footprints in the snow, except for those that belonged to some very large dogs – and fortunately they didn’t seem to be around. The group’s first target was one of the hulking firing stands that loom over the complex. They wandered around until they finally found a ladder, which they used to scale the steel pillar.

Looking down on the snowy compound

From the top of the tower, the explorers enjoyed spectacular views of the compound, Khimki and even Moscow. The firing stands are used to test out new rocket engines, like the experimental modified RD191 oxygen- and kerosene-fueled engine tested at the facility in October 2012. Smaller and lighter than the original RD191 design, this new engine boasts 200 tons of thrust and features several welds that include cameras, turbine mixing heads and housing for a gas generator.

The stand Sator and her friends climbed is 260 feet (80 meters) high and around 230 feet (70 meters) wide. During the firing tests, plumes of smoke billow out of the massive chimneys.

Clusters of exhaust nozzles

Originally known as OKB-456, the facility was first established in 1946. The “OKB” of its former name stood for Opytnoe Konstructorskoe Byuro, or “Experimental Design Bureau.” During the Cold War, these bureaus were responsible for creating advanced technology prototypes, mostly for military purposes. State-approved designs were then mass produced at factories around the country. The Khimki complex has played a vital role in the development of massive LOX (liquid oxygen)/kerosene engines, which replaced their LOX/ethanol predecessors.

The round red door is the seal for the structure’s exhaust system.

Over the years, the NPO Energomash facility – renamed after its chief designer on May 15, 1991 – has produced some significant rocket engines, including those that powered the Atlas V, Proton and Soyuz launch systems. Its most recent engine is the RD191, which has been tested and modified and is going to be used in the Angara and Baikal space launch vehicles currently in development. So, despite its deserted appearance here, there’s still some important work going on at the Khimki plant.

Not a soul in sight

Meanwhile, Sator and her group found the heavy metal doors at the base of the tower propped halfway open. Inside, they discovered pooled water and some steam. Water is used in the rocket engine testing process to cool down engine exhaust and to dampen the noise of the firing tests – which can exceed 200 decibels and has been called “one of the loudest manmade sounds on Earth.” Obviously, this is not the kind of facility you would want next door.

The towers illuminated at night

After exploring the watery base of the tower, Sator and her friends left the facility – only to come back a few days later. To their surprise, the floor of the firing test tower was dry when they returned. Sator describes the tower base as looking like “an umbrella, or the foot of a Christmas tree.”

In one spot, they found a pile of what Sator says are rocket exhaust nozzles. These nozzles are used to speed up and expand the gases produced by the burning liquid propellants, and ultimately they ensure that the gases are released at hypersonic speeds.

Another deserted old room

A few days later, Sator and friends again returned to the site. This time, their attention was caught by a structure with a brightly-lit emergency staircase. They walked up to the seventh floor before opting to take the elevator. According to Sator, the building seemed to be geared towards tests – with pipes, gauges and cameras set up all over the place. They also came across spaces containing control panels.

The enormous armored chamber

Although rockets are designed to function at high altitudes or in space, it’s much easier to test rocket engines at ground-level facilities like this one. They can be tested in either horizontal or vertical orientations, as they are at the Khimki site. However, liquid-fueled engines are most commonly tested vertically, since the pumps that receive the propellant are built to take in fuel from the base of the fuel tanks. Solid rocket engines, on the other hand, can be tested both vertically and horizontally. The conditions of these tests are carefully controlled; and naturally, test sites need to be situated in safe locations in case of accidents.

These colored pipes look relatively bright and new.

The next area Sator’s group explored was a chamber where the engines are brought in and fixed to the rocket bases to be tested. It’s a huge space – and well lit, from the looks of these photographs. During altitude tests, such chambers typically operate in pressure conditions of 0.16 pounds per square inch (psia), which is equal to that experienced at an altitude of some 100,000 feet. Perilous-looking staircases and walkways lead up to higher platforms – making it the ideal place for a thrilling James Bond chase sequence.

Looking down on the chamber

On her blog, Sator writes that the building has no glass windows. Instead, there are loose metal sheets fitted over the openings. When the building is empty – as it was when Sator was there – the wind blowing against the metal sounds like people climbing steps, hammering and opening doors. Discomforting sounds to the ears of the uninvited.

A security camera held together with tape

As you can imagine, the fact that Sator not only managed to breach this restricted facility but also posted her photographs online created quite a stir in Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s defense industry, referred to Sator and her friends as – perhaps less affectionately than it sounds – “cheeky mice.” Then again, he dubbed those in charge of the site’s security “sleepy cats” and implied that they would face stiff consequences if incidents like this continued to happen.

Large rusty doors – open, of course

Sator likens breaking into the test site and similar installations to performing a public service. She argues that by infiltrating these supposedly off-limits facilities, she is highlighting the lack of security – and hopefully prompting authorities to do something about it. Apart from the broken fence, she found doors left ajar, a surprising lack of alarms, and cameras that didn’t seem to work. In other words, she and her friends were more or less free to roam the complex.

Open doors at the base of the tower

The Russian military police weren’t quite so positive about Sator’s urban exploration. Not long after she published her photos online, she was arrested and officially warned. However, Sator insists that this will not stop her from continuing her expeditions.

Looking out on the facility, Khimki and Moscow

On her blog, Sator describes visiting the rocket engine test facility as “the fulfillment of an old dream” and “an unforgettable experience.” Her find and high-profile arrest have surely made her the envy of urban explorers – and perhaps rocket engine addicts – everywhere.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14