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How is Baikonur, the first and most secret space base in the world from which the USSR conquered the cosmos

How is Baikonur, the first and most secret space base in the world from which the USSR conquered the cosmos

How is Baikonur, the first and most secret space base in the world from which the USSR conquered the cosmos

The world’s first and most secret space base, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, is located in the middle of a vast Central Asian desert, 2,600 km southeast of Moscow and 1,300 km from the two main cities of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan and Almaty. .

It was from this remote part of the western steppe that the Soviet Union successfully launched in 1957 the first artificial satellite, the Sputnik 1.

Four years later, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin set out from here on the mission that would make him the first human to fly into space. He did it aboard the Vostok 1.

And in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, who would be the first woman to go into space, also left here.

Following the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, Baikonur became the only operational launch site on the planet for the International Space Station (ISS).

Now, 60 years after Gagarin’s historic first flight, it remains the world’s leading spaceport.

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

The route to space

To get to space, you need two things: to be 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 the fastest in that contour of the planet.

In the case of the American space program, it found that place is the east coast of Florida, where the Kennedy Space Center was built.

Meanwhile, the USSR searched the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic for a remote location within its borders that could host tests of long-range missiles and rocket launches.

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

The Soviets identified a huge expanse of scrub in the southern steppe of Kazakhstan along the Syr Darya River, in a small settlement called Tiuratam (or Toretam).

There was a basic platform for the loading and unloading of goods and passengers, built at the time for geologists and those who were looking for oil in the area, but not much else.

Was a flat wasteland, without trees and with an extreme climate: Dust storms were frequent, temperatures exceeded 50 ° C in summer and -30 ° C in winter.

Using the train line, the Soviet machine was put to work and brought in thousands of workers to build and assemble facilities and a set of launch pads.

This also led to the construction of the largest man-made crater on the planet: a well 250 meters long, 100 wide and 45 deep, designed to take advantage of the hell of flames and smoke that would be generated when launching the largest rocket in the world.

The city of Tiuratam grew along the river, about 30 km south of the launch facilities.

To confuse its American competitors, the Soviets changed its name, borrowing that of another city, located hundreds of miles away.

Thus was born the secret of Baikonur.

To Baikonur

That this isolated and desolate land is the last place astronauts stay before leaving Earth and the first place they see when they return home seems strangely appropriate.

In the documentary about his record stay aboard the ISS, “A Year in Space,” NASA astronaut Scott Kelly described Baikonur as a kind of house halfway into space.

“Somehow, it makes a bit of sense for me to come to a place like this first, which is already isolated from what is normal for you, because it seems more like a stepping stone to a place that is more isolated. You know, (like going) from a remote place to a more remote place, ”he said.

In his book “Beyond: The Amazing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Travel to Space,” Stephen Walker wrote that control of space was as much an ideological quest as it was a military matter.

Rockets were first developed to fly into space, but government minds quickly realized their potential to carry ballistic missiles that could drop bombs into distant enemy territory.

The Soviet space program began by rebuilding V2 rockets captured from the Nazis during World War II.  (RUSSIAN ARCHIVES, BBC)

Satellites orbiting the Earth could also provide an astronomical view of places human spies would have trouble reaching.

While in the early 1960s the United States tried to save face from its publicly stalled attempts to get a person into space, Soviet secrecy benefited the USSR program.

If a tragedy were to occur during an American release, it would happen on live television, in front of the press and the nation.

For the Soviets, the secret offered freedom to take greater risks and move faster and with more urgency.

“The Soviets were protecting their missile site, their technology: the R7 missile, which Gagarin flew in, was the largest ICBM in the world at the time. And their secrets had to be protected, ”Walker tells me.

He adds: “The Soviets were terrified that the Americans got hold of this technology, which in fact, they finally did.”

The fall of the USSR

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 a cost of approximately US $ 1 billion a year.

A growing number of tourists He now visits Baikonur to see launches, especially manned missions to the ISS, but the sense of secrecy remains.

The city is essentially a Russian enclave surrounded by Kazakhstan and the cosmodrome is a restricted facility operated by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Travelers must be on a guided tour organized through an operator that is certified to apply for entry permits.

Tourists can watch live launches from here.  (VEGITEL)

The city of Baikonur is in many ways a perfect relic of the soviet 1960s.

Mosaics depicting muscular comrades heralding a new era of space still decorate the front doors and walls of the city’s functional and brutalist apartment blocks, which once housed construction workers, aerospace engineers and their families.

Inside the cosmodrome, crumbling hangars stand side by side alongside the original minimalist cabins where Yuri Gagarin and the first cosmonauts slept the night before going into space.

Most tourists come specifically to witness a rocket launch.


But Gianluca Pardelli, founder and director of Soviet Tours, an agency specializing in travel to the former USSR, said that Baikonur is also interesting for its historical and cultural merits.

“The city of the same name next to the cosmodrome is a perfect example of Soviet urban planning in the middle of nowhere, the steppe and the desert of Kazakhstan,” he says.

A typical tour of Baikonur includes visits to the launch facilities, including the platform where Gagarin first went into space.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome Museum tells the story of the spaceport.

“It has things that you won’t find anywhere else, in any other space museum in the world,” says Walker.

“It is full of strange artifacts, strange things, nonsense, bits and pieces, greatly celebrating the glory days of the space program Soviet ”, he adds.


But the fate of Baikonur is uncertain.

In November 2020, the 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 manned mission had been launched from the US from the space shuttle Discovery in 2010.

Russia has also been building its own new spaceport, the Cosmodrome of Vostochny, in the far east of the country.

But Moscow is optimistic about the continued operation of Baikonur.

In an exclusive statement for this article, Roscosmos said that the new Vostochny cosmodrome will 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 in Baikonur. Another important project is the launch pad modernization World-famous Gagarin Start for the modern operation of the Soyuz-2 launch vehicle, ″ he said.

Whatever its future as a functioning spaceport, Baikonur’s value as a piece of living history, Soviet nostalgia, and human cultural heritage is indisputable.

London, Paris, Beijing, and Washington may all be the centers of empires past or present, but it was from a dusty railroad stop in the middle of the Kazakh steppe that humanity made its first foray into the cosmos.



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