An unusual spectacle on Sydney’s Harbour was the lifting of a Russian space shuttle from a barge onto the wharf. It had come to Australia all the way from Russia to be put on display, and to coincide with the Olympic Games which start in September.

The shuttle, weighing more than 60t, was brought to Australia by the Buran Space Corporation, whose chairman, Dr Paul Scully-Power, was Australia’s first astronaut and commanded the fourth shuttle mission for NASA. He is also chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority Australia.

Lifting and transportation facilities at the Australian end of the journey were provided by Wheelers Hydraulic Cranes, a medium-sized crane hire company jointly owned by Fred Wheeler and Gregg Melrose.

The lift from barge to wharf and subsequent relocation was a tandem lift performed by two Liebherr all-terrain cranes, an LTM 1200 and an LTM 1300 with superlift, and assisted by a Demag AC 80-1 and a Franna AT 18 pick and carry crane. According to Gregg Melrose, this was not a technically difficult lift but offered a high profile event, attracting TV and press on the days after the shuttle ‘landed’ by ship.

According to Buran chief executive Graeme Bridges, the Russian shuttle airframe was modelled on the US equivalent which was declassified at the time, but the controls and propulsion system are of Russian design. This belies local press reports that the shuttle design was copied from the US via the internet.

Wheelers beat stiff competition from larger heavy lift outfits which bid for the project. The contract with Buran involved the lifting of the shuttle fuselage, minus wings and tail, onto a wharf near the Sydney Casino, and relocation to be jacked and skated to a site at Darling Harbour, where it is to be refitted and housed for display.

Fred Wheeler supervised on-site operations and Melrose designed, planned and oversaw the work. “According to Australian requirements, the dual lift must allow for 20% over the weight, and both crane crews must be controlled by one dogman,” said Melrose.

The fuselage is 36.8m long, including a 3.3m forward spire, and at its widest point is 6m wide. Its 200m2 of wind face was not a problem as the summer’s day had little breeze. The rear, rocket-propulsion end weighed 35t and the nose end 29.5t.

The Liebherr cranes were rigged with 28.7m of main boom and each had 79t of counterweight.

The rear end crane lifted at 14m maximum radius and the front was at 15m radius, which allowed the shuttle to be well clear of the wharf and be slewed sideways between the booms for setdown 50m away. Fortunately the wharf, Pymont 13 (now a car park), was originally built for heavy loads and could take the force exerted by the outriggers.

Lifting straps were already bolted onto the fuselage structure so Wheelers only had to supply spreaders and shackles, and take care to keep to strict clearances and tolerances and not damage the shuttle.

Water transport was carried out by Ability Barges, using a 1,000t barge, and land transport was handled by TJ Clark Transport, both on subcontract to the crane hire company.

At the European end of the shuttle’s journey, lifting and transportation was contracted to Brambles Project Services, out of Australia, and was handled through ProCargo of Helsinki, Finland, led by Wolfgang Karau.

A single 350t Krupp crane was used to lift the shuttle onto an 18m x 85m flat top barge which carried the unit through 24 canal locks and lakes. It took five weeks to transport it from Moscow to St Petersburg for shipment overseas.