Abandoned buildings in the Baikonur Cosmodrome sit quietly gathering dust as their operational value to Russia’s space program has passed. While the eyes of the media focus on the newest advances in science, an urban explorer named Bob Thissen dreamed of exploring those dust covered buildings and their internal treasures.
Baikonur or Star City, as it was called in the Space Age, has been the location of many significant events in the history of mankind. The secluded complex in Kazakhstan’s steppe was the launch point for Sputnik (1957) and Yuri Gagarin’s famous journey into space on April 12, 1961. That was the beginning but since that time the Baikonur Cosmodrome has remained the center of an ongoing list of “firsts” in the history of Space and Soviet/Russian achievements. Today the site’s ongoing space program continues launches into space, including passengers from NASA’s astronaut program on their way to the International Space Station.
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The daunting task of traveling across the world to Kazakhstan, reaching Baikonur and sneaking inside to get some photos might discourage most. But Thissen has a passion for exploring abandoned buildings, ships, and locations. He and his colleagues have ventured around the world to spend time in everything from castles to old movie sets. Unlike other urban explorers, Thissen captures his experiences in stunning video episodes that bring the viewer along on the adventure. Armed only with a backpack of equipment, Thissen explores, interacts and captures the spirit of a time gone by.
The projects are part of Thissen’s passion and profession as a filmmaker. His specialty in stop motion work has won awards at multiple film festivals. His daring venture into Baikonur was rewarded with an epic experience to walk aboard the Buran shuttles that were under construction at the time the Buran project was discontinued.
Thissen and his friends spent twenty-four hours in the abandoned hangar, evading security patrols and sleeping aloft of the Buran shuttles. Thissen struggled with navigating his drone as the GPS failed to work and manual controls were not completely responsive. Extreme electronic interference also impacted his attempt at recording the neighboring rocket facility.
In spite of the harsh conditions and risk of being detected, Thissen and his crew have created a respectful and inspiring journey into a place few people have seen since the end of the Soviet Union’s space program.
Florida Russian Lifestyle Magazine caught up with Thissen while he was working on another project, on board an oil tanker. The upbeat and adventurous personality of Thissen quickly shows through in his answers and candor. Here is what he had to say during our dialogue about the Baikonur project and his work as an urban explorer.
FR: Can you share a little about yourself for our readers?
BT: I’m 31 years old and live in the Southern part of The Netherlands. I’ve always been adventurous and curious about old abandoned buildings. I discovered “Urban Exploring” in 2007 and it opened a new world for me. Since then I have been completely hooked.
FR: What is your process for selecting a location to explore?
BT: I start planning a trip after I have collected a few nice locations. Urban Exploring is a unique way to explore the world, it’s not just visiting an abandoned building, it’s visiting new countries and learning their culture, history, nature, architecture, etc.
FR: What has been the most difficult location so far?
BT: It’s hard to say, some are hard to photograph while others are difficult to reach or hard to get inside.
FR: You use a mix of drone and fixed camera shots, is there a next step that you want to take in filming, such as 360?
BT: I am always experimenting with new techniques to distinguish myself from other urban explorers. Most are only photographs while I try to document the buildings with a lot of different techniques. I’ve tried 360 degree shots but the technology is not high enough in compact cameras. My long term goal is to make a VR film so people can really experience the abandoned buildings themselves.
FR: Do you fund your trips yourself or are they sponsored?
BT: I pay for the trips myself, and recently started selling some pictures to the media, but that does not cover the trip expenses. I don’t want to know how much money I’ve spent in 10 years of exploring worldwide. It was worth every cent though. Every adventure is another life experience that I’ll never forget. But I hope to find paying projects in the future.
FR: Ever had any close calls with security or unexpected occupants in a location?
BT: Yes, I was held multiple times at gunpoint, chased by stray/security/police dogs, got sued by companies, etc. You name it and it happened. While I was making stop motion animations I got chased by a drug addict and got trapped in a castle, because the only entrance/exit had been locked. Luckily everything went well in the end. I have never have been sent to prison…yet.
FR: Your stop film animations have had great success at Film Festivals, are you considering a documentary?
BT: “Nothing Beside Remains” was my graduation work and combined my two passions. Exploring abandoned buildings and Stop Motion Video. After I graduated with a high distinction we came up with the idea to make a TV series. Three years later it was broadcasted in The Netherlands and Belgium on NPO TV.
We travelled worldwide to visit beautiful locations and brought them back to life with stop motion. The project was called “Exitus”.
FR: Have there been any unexpected benefits or discoveries as a result of your passion for abandoned structures?
BT: Sometimes an unknown location turns out to be very nice and completely intact. New locations are always the best and most rewarding finds.
FR: What was the reaction of your friends and family when you told them you wanted to explore abandoned structures?
BT: My mother and girlfriend worry a lot each time I go on an adventure. They are always happy when I return safely. My dad and friends really love what I do and enjoy hearing my stories when I come home.
FR: Are the locals friendly and helpful when you are on your way to see something in their town?
BT: In most countries people turn out to be very friendly and helpful when you ask them for help. Sometimes you really need them.
FR: How do you manage navigating and language issues when traveling to other countries?
BT: Modern technology really helps! We use google maps (offline) to navigate and google translate to talk with people who don’t speak Dutch, French, German, or English.
Sometimes we take a standard letter in the local language of our intended location.
FR: Have you ever had an equipment issue that kept you from getting a shot or scene?
BT: As long as you have electronic equipment, you will have a lot of issues. Several times my SD cards have malfunctioned and I returned home with zero pictures. In Baikonur I could not shoot a giant rocket, because of broken SD cards. Also a lot of video footage turned out to be corrupt.
FR: What kinds of equipment do you use?
BT: I have a stabilized camera, drone, cheap IR camera and loads of accessories like card holders, lights, tripods, etc.
FR: Is exploration your primary career or do you work in another job as well?
BT: A little of both, I had the stop motion TV series in 2016. I also have a master’s degree in animation and take assignments for video clips, motion graphics and other work for television. I give workshops, lectures and will soon become a part time teacher.
In the future I hope to do full time exploration and grow my business in prints, books and online subscribers of our YouTube channel.
FR: Have you ever brought anything back as a souvenir of a place you filmed?
BT: Of course I was tempted at times to take some souvenirs, but if caught then you are nothing more than a burglar, with a criminal record. That would really ruin my future in exploration because every time I am caught at a location, they would see that criminal record and assume I’m a burglar instead of a photographer. It’s better to take nothing and preserve my professional reputation.
FR: Let’s talk in more detail about Baikonur. What made you pick this location?
BT: Baikonur was my favorite location since I saw three pictures on a Russian forum in 2009. I really love old soviet countries, architecture, graphic style and history. I knew it was a big risk to go there, but I just had to see this with my own eyes. I tried to go there in 2013 for the TV series, but it was not possible at the time. I was finally able to go in 2017, I went along with my friends Frederik, Jan and Morten.
FR: Can you tell us about the process of traveling to the remote area?
BT: Since there are no real roads in the steppe/desert, it was hard to navigate and it took a long time to plan the route at home. But as always you can’t really plan everything as you have no clue how it will be in real life. In the end we took a different road than planned. We also had to be sure to have all material, food and drinks to survive a few days in the steppe/desert.
FR: Without shaming any security guards, how hard was it to get in?
BT: It might look easy on the video, but it’s definitely not a walk in the park. They patrol the area and it’s really a matter of luck. When a car comes you can’t hide anywhere. At one point we saw a car in the desert with lights and heard 3 gunshots. They also check the buildings inside and out so we had to be very cautious. The buildings itself was locked and secured well.
FR: What was it like going inside the Buran shuttle?
BT: It was amazing to see all the technology and it was very tight inside. This Buran was able to fly unmanned so it was hard to navigate through the shuttle. Seeing those shuttles was a little boy’s dream coming true.
FR: How many hours were you on location at Baikonur?
BT: We stayed around 24 hours only. We ran out of water after 1 day because of the heat, which was very disappointing. On the second day we were going to explore the rocket building. I was determined to see it, so I ran to that building at sunset to take photos and video. I then discovered my two SD cards were both broken. I also shot 5 gigabytes of video which turned out to be corrupt also. I only have some iPhone shots to show for it, but at least I have seen it. I’ve never experienced such issues before, maybe it’s because of the radiation? I don’t know but it’s strange.
FR: What kinds of projects are in the works for you? What’s the next location?
BT: I am just back from visiting abandoned oil rigs and soon will go to Japan, USA, Myanmar, Thailand and the Baltic States.
FR: Your content feels like a show I would see on the History Channel or National Geographic. Have you had any interest from them in making a series?
BT: It would be cool to work for those channels! There is so much history in abandoned buildings and it’s adventurous to explore them. Each location presents a completely different set of challenges in diverse conditions from snowy mountains one week, to a desert or jungle the next. But the rewards speak for themselves when you see the videos.
FR: What has been your most popular channel for connecting with fans?
BT: YouTube has been the most popular. I think it’s because people feel they are coming along with us on the adventure.
Bob Thissen’s unique and compelling works are unlike anything you will find on the internet today. Take a look at any of his video’s and you’ll quickly understand how he has built a subscriber base of almost 24,000 fans. The Baikonur project went viral and has passed over 800,000 views in just over a month. His relentless ambition to capture the remains of once great structures is a fantastic blend of his skills as a filmmaker and passion for exploration.
Bob Thissen’s adventures are available for viewing on:
Prints and photosets: www.bobthissen.com
More of Bob’s Thissen’s Adventures, All images © Bob Thissen