Humanity’s unlikely gateway to space

13th December, 2021.      //   Space Travel, Technology  // 
Astronaut Scott Kelly described Baikonur, an isolated base in western Kazakhstan, as a sort of halfway house to space (Credit: Vegitel)
Hidden from the world for decades, Baikonur Cosmodrome helped the Soviets reach outer space. Today, it’s the world’s primary spaceport – although its sense of secrecy remains.

The world’s first and most secretive space base, Baikonur Cosmodrome, sits in the middle of a vast Central Asian desert, 2,600km south-east of Moscow and 1,300km from Kazakhstan’s two main cities, Nur-Sultan and Almaty. It was from this remote part of the western steppe in 1957 that the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial satellite – Sputnik 1 – into orbit around Earth. Four years later, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin launched from here to become the first human to fly into space aboard the Vostok 1. And in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova launched from Baikonur as the first woman in space.

After the retirement of Nasa’s Space Shuttle programme in 2011, Baikonur became the planet’s only working launch site to the International Space Station (ISS). Now, 60 years after Gagarin’s historic first flight, it remains the world’s main spaceport.

But how and why did a dusty outpost in the wilds of western Kazakhstan become humanity’s unlikely gateway to outer space?

To get to space, you need two things: to be far away from populated areas; and to be as close to the equator as possible to take advantage of the Earth’s rotational speed, which is fastest at that contour of the planet. In the case of the US space programme, this meant the east coast of Florida, where the Kennedy Space Center was built. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, went to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in search of a remote locale within its borders that could accommodate long-range missile testing and rocket launches.

The Soviet Union had been experimenting with rocketry since the 1920s and, after World War II, obtained German V-2 rocket technology that significantly boosted its programme.

The Soviets identified a huge expanse of barren scrubland in the southern Kazakh steppe along the Syr Darya River, at a tiny settlement called Tyuratam (or Toretam). There was already a railhead (a basic platform for goods and passengers to load and unload) there, built for geologists and prospectors originally looking for oil, but not much else. It was a flat, treeless wasteland with an extreme climate: dust storms were frequent; temperatures soared above 50C in summer; and ice storms blew below -30C in winter.

Using the train line, the Soviet machine went to work bringing in thousands of labourers to build and assemble facilities and a set of launch pads, including the biggest artificial crater on the planet: a 250m-long, 100m-wide, 45m-deep pit designed to harness the inferno of flame and smoke expunged from the world’s largest rocket as it launched.

The town of Tyuratam grew along the river, some 30km south of the launch facilities. To throw their American competitors off the scent, the Soviets changed Tyuratam’s name, borrowing the name of another town a few hundred kilometres away and giving it to the cosmodrome and the nearby town. The secret of Baikonur was born.

That this isolated, desolate land is the last place that astronauts stay before they leave Earth, and the first place they see when they return home, seems oddly fitting.

In the documentary about his record-breaking stay aboard the ISS, A Year in Space, Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly described Baikonur as a kind of halfway house to space: “In some ways, it makes a little bit of sense to me to come to a place like this first, that is already isolated from what is normal to you, because it seems more like it’s a stepping stone to someplace that’s further isolated. You know, one remote place to a more remote place.”

In his book, Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space, Stephen Walker wrote that control of space was both an ideological quest and a military matter. Rockets were first developed to fly into space, but government minds quickly realised their potential to carry ballistic missiles that could drop bombs on faraway enemy territory. Satellites orbiting Earth could also provide an astronomical view into foreign lands that human spies would have trouble reaching.

While in the early 1960s, the United States tried to save face on its publicly stalled attempts to get a person into space, Soviet secrecy benefitted the USSR’s programme. If tragedy were to strike during a US launch, it would happen on live TV, in front of the press and the nation. For the Soviets, secrecy offered freedom to take bigger risks and to move faster and with more urgency.

“The Soviets were protecting their missile site, protecting their technology – the R7 missile, which Gagarin flew in, was the biggest intercontinental ballistic missile in the world at the time. And its secrets needed to be protected. People were terrified that the Americans would get hold of this technology, which in fact, they did, ultimately,” Walker told me.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Kazakhstan gained independence and suddenly Russia’s most important space base was on foreign soil. In 1994, the Russians signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to lease Baikonur at an expense of approximately 7 billion rubles (£82.5 million) a year.

A growing number of tourists now visit Baikonur to watch launches, especially crewed missions to the ISS, but the sense of secrecy remains today. The town is essentially a Russian exclave surrounded by Kazakhstan, and the cosmodrome is a restricted facility operated by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Travellers must be on a guided tour arranged through an operator that is certified to apply for a pile of entry permits.

Elena Matveeva, project manager for Vegitel, one of the main tour operators to Baikonur, said this is part of the cosmodrome’s draw. “It gives you an opportunity to visit a unique place you cannot visit by yourself. You have to come [through] an authorised tour operator who can [apply for] access clearance.”

Baikonur comprises both the cosmodrome – a vast, 7000-sq-km tract of land with a complex of launchpads and hangars – and the town (formerly Tyuratam), which lies to the south. The town of Baikonur is in many ways a perfect relic of the Soviet 1960s. Stoic mosaics depicting muscular comrades heralding a new era of space still decorate entrance gates and the walls of the town’s functional, Brutalist apartment blocks, which once housed construction workers, aerospace engineers and space families. Inside the cosmodrome, crumbling hangars stand side-by-side next to the original, minimalist cottages where Yuri Gagarin and the early cosmonauts slept the night before they went into space.

Most come specifically to witness a rocket launch. But Gianluca Pardelli, founder and director of Soviet Tours, an agency specialising in travel to the former USSR, said Baikonur is interesting for its historical and cultural merits, too. “The namesake city next to the cosmodrome is a perfect example of Soviet urban planning in the middle of nowhere – it’s this Soviet planned town in the middle of the Kazakh steppe and desert.”

A typical tour to Baikonur includes visits to launch facilities, including Gagarin’s Start, the pad where Yuri first went into space. The Museum of Baikonur Cosmodrome History chronicles the spaceport’s storied history: “It has things that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, in any other space museum in the world,” said Walker. “It’s full of strange artefacts and odds and sods and bits and pieces, very much celebrating the glory days of the Soviet space programme.”

Getting here is itself an adventure, involving a flight to one of Kazakhstan’s main cities – Astana or Almaty – followed by an internal flight to the outpost city of Kyzylorda and a four-hour road journey or slow train west across the flatlands to Baikonur. Once here, you have a choice of an international hotel, which also accommodates the astronauts; or a cheaper, Soviet-style hotel with no frills.

Tourists attending a launch participate in festivities, including watching the roll-out of the Russian Soyuz rocket as it trundles on a specialised rail car from the hangar to the launch pad, and a seeing-off ceremony for the astronauts (or cosmonauts, as they are known in Russian) as they board a bus to head to the spacecraft.

For Robert Joy, a tourist from Swansea, Wales, who visited Baikonur in 2019, seeing the rocket roll-out was the highlight of his visit. “You stand right next to the rocket and follow it to Launch Pad No. 1. It did not disappoint on any level.”

Joy said that travelling to Baikonur was his lifelong dream. “I have always wanted to visit Baikonur since I was a young child. It was the secret Soviet launch site behind the Iron Curtain.”

For Matveeva, the experience of attending a launch is emotional. “It’s like a combination of living history and a spectacular event. Because when you see the rocket lifting off, when you feel the earth trembling, when you hear the engines roaring… you’re a part of this historical event. And somehow you feel that these cosmonauts going to space are so dear to you.”

In November 2020, American company SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, launched its first Crew Dragon mission, sending a crew to the ISS from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the first time a crewed mission had launched from the US since the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2010. Russia has also been constructing its own new spaceport, Vostochny Cosmodrome, in the country’s far east.

But Russia is optimistic about Baikonur’s continued operation. In an exclusive statement for this article, Roscosmos said that the new Vostochny Cosmodrome would not result in a decrease in activities at Baikonur. “Russia, in cooperation with [the] Republic of Kazakhstan, is creating the new Baiterek rocket space complex at Baikonur. Another important project is the world-famous Gagarin’s Start launchpad modernisation for the modern Soyuz-2 launch vehicle operation.”

Whatever its future as a working spaceport, the value of Baikonur as a piece of living history, Soviet nostalgia and human cultural heritage is indisputable. London, Paris, Beijing and Washington may all be the centres of empires past or present, but it was from a dusty railway stop in the middle of the Kazakh steppe that humanity took its first foray into the cosmos.

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