Baikonur Cosmodrome (near the Aral Sea, 30 kilometers from the town of Baikonur, near the village of Tyuratam, 275 kilometers northwest of Kyzylorda) was the launch site for nearly all the rockets used in the Soviet and Russian space program. The complex is owned by Kazakhstan and leased to Russia's until 2050. Special permissions is needed to visit the area. For a long time tourist were rarely given access. These days three-day Baikonur Spaceport Tours are available for about $400. They sometimes include witnessing a launch,

Baikonur Cosmodrome is the world’s first and the largest space center. Occupying an area of 6,717 square kilometers, it has been a launch pad for many different types of space vehicles. It is one of three space centers on Earth — along with the Cape Canaveral in the U.S. and Jiuquan in China — that has launched manned spacecraft. The orbit of the International Space Station (ISS) was chosen taking into account the latitude of Baikonur so Baikonur could be used to launch spacefcraft with supplies and astronauts.

Baikonur is in the Tyuratam desert. Construction of it began in January 1955. It became functional in 1957, the year Sputnik was launched. In 1970-80 Baikonur was the largest cosmodrome in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s cosmodrome became the property of Kazakhstan. The first satellite, dog, man and woman into space were launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Manned space vehicles launched from the site include the Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz series. The "Salute" and "World" space station series, the reusable "Energiya — Buran" craft, scores of of interplanetary spacecrafts and hundreds of satellites have been launched from the cosmodrome. . About 50 percent of the annual number of space launches of Russia are launched from Baikonur, but on the total mass of the output payloads is more than 80 percent, including 100 of the percent launches into geostationary orbit.

Baikonurwas located in bleak steppe far enough away from populated areas so that if a mishap occurred no one from the general population would get hurt. The location was so secret that few people knew where it was. Even the name was intended to throw people off. Baikonur was the name of town 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the actual launch site. The location was kept secret from the U.S. until it was spotted by a U-2 spy plane in 1957. There are some other Russian rocket launching facilities. Plesetsk launch facility in northwest Russia specializes in launching military satellites.

Baikonur is where Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and all of the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s space mission were launched. It is a huge complex, a city really. At its peak in the 1980s it was home to 150,000 people, 52 launching plazas, 34 scientific laboratories and 10 factories. It had its own agricultural system and embraced six towns. There were movie theaters, one of the best hospitals in the Soviet Union, 13 schools, specialized music schools, three palaces of culture, a palace of Young Pioneers, resort and beaches built on an artificial lake. Today Baikonur is now primarily used for commercial launchings and to send supplies and people to the International Space Station. Most of the people who work at Baikonur are Russians. When Baikonur was built it was regarded as so secret that a dummy launch site was built 370 kilometers away to fool high-flying spy planes.

Baikonur has handled twice as many launches as Cape Canaveral in the U.S. According to NASA: Baikonur Cosmodrome is the launch complex where Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite, was launched. The rocket that lifted Yuri Gagarin, the first human in orbit, was also launched from Baikonur. In fact, all Russian crewed missions are launched from Baikonur, as well as all geostationary, lunar, planetary and ocean surveillance missions. All space station flights using Russian launch vehicles will be launched from Baikonur. Baikonur is also the only Russian launch site capable of launching the Proton launch vehicle, which was used for Zarya, the first element launch of the space station. [Source: NASA]


Baikonur City (30 kilometers from Baikonur Cosmodrome) is closest major town to Baikonur Cosmodrome. It used to be called Leninsk City; in 1995 it was renamed Baikonur. Situated in the heart of the vast Kazakh steppes, Baikonur is home to about 30,000 people (about 70,000 people lives in the general area of the Cosmodrome) . The Baikonur (Baikonyr) comes from the village of Baikonur, which lies where the town is situated today. In order to camouflage the real Cosmodrome, a fake one was built of wood to throw off enemy spy planes and satellites. This fake cosmodrme gave birth

Baikonur is located on a bend of the Syr Darya (river) about half way between Kazalinsk and Dzhusaly, two district centers of Kyzylorda region, near the railway station of Tyura-Tam. Leninsk was founded in 1955 and grew from the western suburbs of what is now the so-called "wooden town". Some of original one-storeyed "wooden" houses; they are exceptionally well suited to the desert climate.

Getting to Baikonur: The easiest way is to fly to Kyzylorda, the nearest city to Baikonur and from there take a train, bus or taxi. The nearest Railway Station to Baikonur is Turetam. Travelling from Astana to Baikonur on a train usually takes more than 24 hours. There are direct trains from Almaty to Turetam station, but again the trip is usually more than 24 hours. There is a direct flight from Moscow (Russia) to Baikonur (Domodedovo Airport – Krainiy Airport) three times a week. There are frequent flights to Kyzylorda from Astana, Almaty and other places in Kazakhstan.

International Space School and Sights in Baikonur City

Baikonur city sprawls over an area of approximately 40 square kilometers. The Syr Darya river is the natural boundary for the west and south sides of the city. The city is the administrative and economic center of the cosmodrome and has the status of city of republic significance in Kazakhstan, which rented and administered by the Russian Federation. In the center of the city is the central square and government buildings of cosmodrome, computing and information processing centers, the hotel "Central" and the department store. the Soldier's Park is near the main avenue. One of the first TV towers in Kazakhstan was built in the city in 1961.

The Monument to Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin, the first man in space, sits the park between the house of communications and building of the city administration. the street along which cosmonauts enter the city from the airport is also named after Gagarin. The main square is named Korolev Square after Sergei Korolev, the leading Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer in the 1950s and 1960s and regarded by many as the father of the Soviet space program and practical astronautics. The square is situated at the intersection of the street 50 years of the Soviet Army and the Korolev Prospect (formerly Karl Marx). Korolev Square contains a monument, produced by the sculptor, A.P. Faydysh-Karandievsky and architect N. Asatur.

The International Space School (at Baikonur) is named after Vladimir Nikolaevich Chelomey. It offers three fields of study — 1) physical and mathematical, 2) chemical and biological and 3) aerospace — in which 750 students from 5 to 11 forms are studying. The International Space School is a profile school of MSTU named after N.E. Bauman. It is a member of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the Program Committee on Education IAF, and the International Organization of young astronauts. In 1993, the International Space School opens scientific branch "Space" of Small Academy of Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan. The International Space School has a large space museum, which contains unique exhibits of rocket and space technology. The International Space School pays much attention to trips for gifted students at the events such as the olympiads, competitions, conferences. Usually efforts are not wasted, and representatives of the International Space School win prizes.

Baikonur Since the Break Up of the Soviet Union

In 1995, the Governments of Kazakhstan and Russia entered into an agreement whereby Russia would lease for a period of 20 years an area of 6,000 square kilometers enclosing the Baikonur (also spelled Baykonur) space launch facilities and the city of Bayqongyr (Baykonur, formerly Leninsk); in 2004, a new agreement extended the lease to 2050. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

After Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, Kazakhstan and Russia debated ownership of the facility, while the facility itself suffered acute deterioration from the region's harsh climate and from uncontrolled pilfering. In 1994 Russia formally recognized Kazakhstan's ownership of the facility, although a twenty-year lease ratified in 1995 guaranteed Russia continued use of Baikonur. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996]

On April 16, 2002, Russia announced that it would henceforth launch military satellites at the Pletsnesk cosmodrome in northern Russia, ending the practice of launching satellites from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Baikonur remained the launchpad for commercial satellites and manned missions. [Source: Jonas Bendiksen and Laara Matsen,, April 19, 2002 ]

In 2005, Moscow agreed to pay Kazakhstan $115 million rent to use the Baikonur. Russia often didn’t pay its bills and a debt of $300 million built up. At one point Kazakhstan demanded $7 billion a year for use of the site. Russia has its Baikonur rent in various ways such as infrastructure repair in the Baikonur region and free studies for Kazakh officers in Russian military schools.

NASA and the European Space Agency often launch rockets from Baikonur. Almost the entire population of Baikonur City works at the space complex. Russia gave all of the workers the opportunity to become Russian citizens. The effect was that Baikonur City became a sort of Russian enclave in the center of Kazakhstan. [Source: Radio Free Europe, 2006]

The cosmodrome has been rented out since 1994. Annual rent stands at $115 million. Russia’s Roskosmos Federal Space Agency spent over $33.3 million in 2012 to maintain infrastructure and space facilities at the Kazakhstan-based Baikonur cosmodrome, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported February 1, 2013, citing Yuzhny Space Center Evgeniy Anissimov as saying. [Source: RIA Novosti, July 2, 2013]

See Separate Article on the History of Baikonur

Location of Baikonur

Baikonur Cosmodrome is located in the Republic of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, between 45 degrees and 46 degrees North latitude and 63 degrees East longitude. It is 32 kilometers from the town of Leninsk, 260 kilometers northwest of Kyzl-Orda and 1,200 kilometers west of Almaty. Special permission is needed to visit the area. Tourist are rarely given access.

The name Baikonur is misleading. The former Soviet Union used the name and coordinates of a small mining town, Baikonur, to describe the location of its rocket complex. In fact, the launch complex is about 322 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of the mining town near Tyuratam in Kazakhstan. This misrepresentation was done intentionally to hide the actual location of the launch complex. Although the true location is now known, the launch complex is still referred to as Baikonur.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome is located in a semi-arid zone approximately 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) southeast of Moscow, Russia. The annual temperature averages 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit), but ranges from minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter to plus 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. [Source: NASA]

Baikonur is closer to the Equator than other launch sites – a situation that facilitates geostationary orbit or orbits less inclined to reach the International Space Station (ISS). This privileged geographic placement enables the launch of more significant payloads. [Source: RIA Novosti, July 2, 2013]

Baikonur Facilities

According to “ According to the official data released at the beginning of the 1990s, Baikonur Cosmodrome had 11 assembly buildings and nine launch complexes with 15 launch pads for space boosters. The cosmodrome also featured: A) An oxygen and nitrogen plant, capable of producing 300 tons of cryogenic propellants a day; B) Three fueling and neitralization facilities (only one was active in mid-1990s and two functioned by 2010, while the third at Site 91 was undergoing final refurbishment); C) A power station; D) 600 energy-converting stations; E) 92 communication sites; F) two airports; G) 470 kilometers of railways; H) 1,281 kilometers of automobile roads; I) 6,610 kilometers of communication lines; J) 360 kilometers of pipelines; K) 1,240 kilometers of waterlines; L) 430 kilometers of sewer lines. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

Rockets used in the Russian space program are transported to the Baikonur by train from production facilities in different locations around the Soviet Union. The Soyuz TM-28 two-stage booster used to launch manned missions to the MIR space station was mounted on a special erector transporter strongback pushed by a diesel locomotive. Huge towers with rows and rows of lights were used in night launches.

“The entire center covered 6,717 square kilometers and extended 75 kilometers from north to south and 90 kilometers from east to west. The facility consumed 600 million kilowatt/hour of electric power annually. By 2010, five ground control stations supported launches from Baikonur. By the end of 2011, Kazakh government estimated value of Baikonur's infrastructure at 467 billion tenge ($3.4 billion).

Main Facilities: A) Site 1 was formally known as Site 1 (PU-5) and 17P32-5. Completed it in 1957, it was the launch pad for R-7, Sputnik, Vostok and Soyuz missions. It is still in service. B) Site 17P32-6 was completed in 1960. Home of the R-7, Molniya launch pad, it was originally built as the R-7 battle station and was modified for Soyuz-Fregat launches. C) Site 32 was completed in 1960. It contains R-7 residential housing, assembly buildings MIK-32 and MIK-32GCh and launch facilities for R-16 ICBM and Kosmos-1 launcher

D) Site 2 was completed in 1957. MIK 2-1 and extension 1A were processing areas for R-7 based launchers and their payloads. 1A extension was completed in mid-1970. The entire facility was abandoned in mid-1990s. Soyuz and Progress processing moved to Site 254. C) Site 2A and 2B were completed in 1958. Site 2A was the home of the MIK 2A processing area for the warheads of the R-7 ICBM. Site 2B housed the MIK 2B-1 (135R) processing area for R-7 based launchers and their payloads. MIK 2B-1 (135R) is used for the integration of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft with the launch vehicle. The operations are expected to be moved to Site 112

“In case of emergency during manned launches, the search and rescue task force within Central Military District, TsVO, activated special operational groups. As of 2012, such teams included under 200 military personnel equipped with 10 Mi-8 helicopters and four An-12 and An-26 planes. These assets would be deployed along the flight path of the manned vehicles in Baikonur, Arkalyk, Dzhezkazgan, Karaganda, Kyzyl and Gorno-Altaisk. The command post of the rescue team was located at the Uprun airfield in the Chelyabinsk District.”

Baikonur's Regions

According to “A test range in Baikonur is traditionally subdivided into three regions, each led by a major player in the Soviet rocketry: 1) Sergei Korolev, 2) Mikhail Yangel and 3) Vladimir Chelomei: 1) Central region (Korolev area): A very first launch complex of the space center was built for the R-7 ICBM, developed at Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau. When Baikonur's test facilities started sprawling east and west from the original launch complex, this region became known as Korolev's area. After a relatively short life as a test complex, the R-7 facilities located in the central region of the range were converted into space launch sites. However, before OKB-1 completely switched to the development of space technology, a Korolev-designed R-9 ICBM was tested at Site 51, also located in the central region. The 1st Test Directorate based in the central region was responsible for processing of both — the R-7 and R-9 rockets. After death of its first chief, Evgeni Ostashev, the 1st Directorate was led by Anatoli Kirillov. After Kirillov's promotion in 1967, his former deputy Vladimir Patrushev became the chief of the directorate. In his turn, Patrushev was replaced by his deputy, Vladimir Bululukov in 1975. (78) The Korolev area grew enormously in 1960s and 1970s, when manned lunar program and later Energia-Buran programs were underway. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“2) Right flank (Yangel area): The eastern section of Baikonur Cosmodrome, or so-called "right flank," was also known as "Yangel area." Since 1960, several generations of ballistic missiles and space launchers developed by Mikhail Yangel's design bureau had been tested here. Yangel's original ICBM — R-16 — was followed by different versions of R-36, MR-UR-100, R-36M and R-36M2 ballistic missiles. Initial tests of the Cosmos-1 booster and all launches of the Zenit-2 rocket were also conducted from the launch pads on the "right flank" of Baikonur.

“3) Left flank (Chelomei area): The west side of Baikonur Cosmodrome, or so-called "left flank," is also known as "Chelomei area." Since beginning of the 1960s, several generations of ballistic missiles and space launchers developed by Vladimir Chelomei's OKB-52 design bureau had been tested here: including UR-200 and several generations of UR-100 ICBM. The launch pads and processing facilities for OKB-52-designed Proton rocket were also located on the left flank. The 4th Test Directorate of the range was responsible for the processing of the Proton rocket.

“Facilities of NIIP-5/GIK-5 (Baikonur Cosmodrome): Traditionally for test sites around the world, various facilities in Baikonur were designated with numbers. These numbers were used in conjunction with word "ploshadka" which in Russian can have two meanings depending on the context: the construction site or a launch pad. Such double meaning often created confusion upon translation into English. Sometimes numbers assigned to "ploshadkas" would be interpreted as launch pad numbers, which is incorrect. The launch pads in Baikonur are usually identified as "puskovaya ustanovka" (or launching device) — which have their own numbering system. Finally, buildings and technical facilities located within "ploshadkas" have their own designations. This web site uses term Site or Facility to translate word "ploshadka":

Motovov: the Baikonur Trains

According to “The infamous "motovoz" — a diesel-powered trains shuttling between the town and launch complexes — has been perhaps the most enduring icon of Baikonur, immortalized in a popular folk song about the center. Yuri Ivancheko, a veteran of the Soviet lunar program, who spent 18 years in Baikonur, left remarkable descriptions of "motovoz journeys" in the 1960s and 1970s. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“According to Ivanchenko, the first Baikonur trains were equipped with 1930s-vintage cars with wooden bunk beds, windows usually stuck in the open or closed position and out-of-order toilets. Although more comfortable cars slowly replaced the old ones, "the tradition of closed toilets and lack of water remained unshaken." In the summer, the trains waiting for their passengers for a return trip under open sun, would turn into a "Finish sauna." To survive the rides in overheated compartments, the officers would undress down to their waists. Not surprisingly, women, who comprised a significant percent of Baikonur's workforce, were assigned separate cars.

“Only between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, were special shelters protecting the trains from the heat during idle time built at the end stations and air-conditioned cars introduced. Better, bigger cars immediately brought their own problems, as few of the conscript soldiers tending the cars could maintain the complex air-conditioning and electrical hardware onboard. As a result, some experienced officers from the spacecraft test units "volunteered" to double as cooling system repairmen and electricians.

“All these improvements did not save the trains and their riders from brutal snow storms in the winter. In his memoirs, Ivanchenko describes how personnel of the launch complexes would get stranded at their work places for the night by raging weather. Even worse, the "buran" (snowstorm) would sometimes catch up with the train somewhere halfway between the work place and the town, trapping its passengers in the middle of a snowy desert.”

Roads at Baikonur

According to “Alongside of Baikonur's main rail line, an uneven automobile road dulls across the steppe. Apparently, due to the secrecy, which once surrounded Baikonur, the road from the town to the test range never had distance markers. Instead it was informally measured by its natural elevations. To identify a location on the road, one would say something like: "The oxygen plant is at the third elevation." Several sources date the foundation of this road to June 17, 1955. At the time, construction activities at the first launch complex in Tyuratam went in full swing, and access to Site 2 suddenly became a stumbling block.

“Due to a lack of special concrete rings, workers had to leave six-meter gaps in places where pavement of the road was expected to go over water lines. However, heavy MAZ trucks had already started using the incomplete road to deliver their cargo to the launch complex. Upon approaching the gaps, some drivers accelerated their vehicles until they jumped over the gaps, often damaging the suspension of their vehicles. The chief of the range construction, Shubnikov, horrified by the scenes of "flying trucks" directed the manager of the brigade responsible for the work, to complete the road as soon as possible.

“On November 7, 1955, (the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution traditionally used as a deadline for the important projects in the USSR), the Shubnikov could finally drive all the way from Tyuratam to the R-7 launch complex via the completed road.

Road to the Stars at Baikonur

According to “Decades later, the road to the cosmodrome starts at the gated entrance into the town of Leninsk, now renamed Baikonur, passing the village of Tyuratam; the road then dives under the overpasses of the Western-Kazakhstan railroad and the M-32 highway. For next several hundreds meters, the road runs across "no-man's" land — essentially unrestricted space, which after 1995 was considered Kazakh territory. However, accidental travelers are inevitably stopped at the check point building, whose front wall is embellished with a stylized sculpture of a star with the image of the cosmonaut helmet in the middle and the proud words "Road to the Stars." The Russian flag tops the roof of the checkpoint manned by soldiers. According to the guides, most of these soldiers serve in the Russian army under contract, as oppose to regular conscripts. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“Beyond the checkpoint, the road sweeps across the mainly empty, but nevertheless closed to outsiders territory of the NIIP-5 test range, better known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The first feature a traveller sees from the "Road to the Stars" are the towers of the command and control network, or KIK. The large dishes of the antennas of the Saturn tracking station dominate the landscape to the east from the road, while enormous fortress-like towers of the Vega trajectory measurement system stand to the west.

“The road then passes a hill, known as "sopka" (rock), and the sprawling industrial landscape of the propellant-producing plant. Several kilometers later, a careful observer will also notice a number of straight-line concrete roads, disappearing beyond the horizon, heading toward old missile silos and command bunkers. Some 20 kilometers into the steppe, both the road and the rail line running besides it, reach two major junctions — first a road branching out to the east, toward the "left flank" of the cosmodrome with launch complexes for the Soyuz, Zenit and R-36M rockets and another road turns to the west, toward so-called Proton city. The main road continues north until it reaches the sign "Baikonur," at the edge of the Site 2 — the original launch complex of the cosmodrome.

Launch Complexes 5 and 6

According to “Space center in Baikonur originated as a test launch site for the R-7 ICBM developed at Sergei Korolev's design bureau. On September 15, 1955 the construction crews started digging the flame duct for the R-7 launch pad. The participants could only guess about real purpose of their efforts, so among soldiers, the construction site would become known as "stadium." The first R-7 rocket blasted off from Site 1 in Tyuratam on May 15, 1957. The world's first artificial satellite [Sputnik] was launched from the same pad on October 4, 1957. After the launch of the first manned spacecraft, Vostok-1, in 1961, the pad at Site 1 was nicknamed "Gagarinskiy Start" (Gagarin's pad). As of Year 2000, 400 launches have been conducted from the pad. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“The residential area and assembly buildings for the R-7 rocket and its derivatives located at Site 2. The early construction here started in 1956. In May 1957, the workers started the erection of the new new assembly and processing building at Site 2A. It also included water-treatment and boiler complex and a special storage apparently for nuclear warheads. The Site 2A complex was completed in July 1958.

“At the end of 1958, a year-and-half after the R-7 ballistic missile started flying, the second launch complex for the same rocket was founded at Site 31, east of the original launch facilities in Tyuratam. Unlike the test launch complex at Site 1 and 2, the Site 31 was planned as an operational and training "battle station" for the R-7 missile. As the R-7's role as a carrier of the nuclear weapons diminished, the Site-31 along with Site-1 was re-purposed for space operations, including manned launches.

“Around November 1959, the construction of the first launch pads for the R-16 missile started at Site 41. The facility included two surface pads designated PU-3 (Puskovaya Ustanovka) and PU-4. The concrete works started here on December 5, 1959, and according to the construction schedule signed on December 17, 1959, the pads were expected to be ready by September 1960. The first launch attempt took place here in October 1960, however it ended in a worst disaster in the history of rocketry. Site 41 was later restored and the launches of the R-16 ICBM resumed in 1961. One of two pads at Site 41 was later converted into the Voskhod complex for the lightweight Kosmos-1 and Kosmos-3 launchers, which flew from here between 1964 and 1968.”

Proton Launchers

According to “In 1962, the Soviet government approved the construction in Tyuratam of the launch complex for the UR-500 rocket, later named Proton. All infrastructure of the new facility was built in the western section of the NIPP-5 test range in Kazakhstan, now known as Baikonur Cosmodrome. Baikonur has always remained the only location from where Protons could be launched. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“All four launch pads for Proton rocket in Baikonur feature similar design. A fully assembled rocket is delivered to the launch pad in horizontal position on a railway transporter. At the pad, a special stationary erector moves the rocket into vertical position. A service tower then moves into position around the rocket for the final launch preparations.

“The two original launch pads for the Proton rocket — No. 23 and No. 24 — are located at Site 81. Launch pads separated by a distance of about 600 meters can share much of the support infrastructure of a dual complex also known as Facility No. 333. Many of Proton's payloads have to be filled with toxic and highly flammable propellants and pressurized gases. Specifically for these hazardous operations, a fueling station designated 11G11 was built at Site 91 around 1965.

“Before its arrival to the launch pad, the Proton rocket is assembled and tested in horizontal position at a dedicated assembly building located at Site 92. Absolute majority of payloads destined to ride Proton rockets are processed at a nearby Building No. 92A-50. This is the one of the most sophisticated facilities in Baikonur.

“The main residential area providing housing for hundreds of people involved in operations with Proton rockets and their payloads is often referred to as "Proton city" by foreign visitors. It is officially designated as Site 95.

“During the 1970's, as new variations of Proton appeared on the drawing board, the Soviet government approved the construction of a brand-new launch complex for the rocket with launch pads No. 39 and No. 40. The development of the facility started in 1970 and the actual construction was initiated in 1972. The dual launch complex is also known as Facility No. 548. It is located at Site 200, east of Proton's the original pads.

The rocket most commonly used today at Baikonur is the Proton-M, a Russian carrier rocket derived from the Soviet-developed Proton. It is built by Khrunichev, and launched from sites 81 and 200 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. [Source: RIA Novosti, July 2, 2013]

Residential Areas at Baikonur

In the Soviet-era Baikonur was like a city. At its peak in the 1980s it was home to 150,000 people, 52 launching plazas, 34 scientific laboratories and 10 factories. It had its own agricultural system and embraced six towns. There were movie theaters, one of the best hospitals in the Soviet Union, 13 schools, specialized music schools, three palaces of culture, a palace of Young Pioneers, resort and beaches built on an artificial lake.

According to “The main residential area of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, home to generations of Russian servicemen and their family members, lays on the right bank of the Syr Darya River in Kazakhstan, near the Tyuratam station on the Moscow-Tashkent railroad. Originally dubbed simply as "Desyataya Ploshadka" (Site 10), this closed military town was called Zarya, Leninskiy, Leninsk and Zvezdograd over the four decades after its founding in 1955. In the mid-1990s, President Yeltsin's decree named the town "Baikonur," as it had previously been identified in the Soviet press. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“The residential area at Site 10 sprawled during the 1960s, as the Soviet lunar program was taking off. By the 1970s, the closed city at Site 10 boasted its own TV-transmission center, several stores and cinemas, a stadium, a branch of the Moscow Aviation Institute, health-care infrastructure, a soft-drink factory and two concrete-producing plants. According to the official data, the town had 356 appartment blocks, nine schools, 31 kindergardens, 18 hotels, capable of accomodating 4,000 people. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the population of the city was reportedly approaching 100,000 people.”

“To accommodate the center's swelling population, the authorities erected numerous 5-7-story-high apartment blocks, the construction of which was widely practiced across the Soviet Union. In the harsh climate of Kazakh steppes, these concrete structures turned out to be traps for heat and sand storms. "During windy periods, especially in March and November ... sand was everywhere in the air, on the roofs, in hallways and apartments, on your teeth, in your hair, nose and ears," wrote a veteran of the town... "On the balconies real sand dunes would form, like somebody was shoveling sand in there." During the hottest months of summer, everyone tried to escape on vacation or at least to send away family members. When air conditioners became widespread in Baikonur during the 1970s, the local power-supply system started experiencing overload during long hot summers.”

Today the town accommodates over 70 000 people, with 37 percent being Russia’s citizens. About 4 000 Russia’s citizens are here almost permanently on business trips to facilitate space launches. The town budget receives over 1 billion roubles a year from the Russian federal budget. [Source: RIA Novosti, July 2, 2013]

Landing at Baikonur

Soviet and Russian spacecraft landed on earth, usually near Arkalyj Kazakhstan, rather than in the ocean as was the case with early American spacecraft. To land a space capsule on land: a parachute slowed the descent to earth. When the spacecraft was a meter off the ground an antenna-like probe signaled retro-rockets to fire, preventing the craft from hitting the earth too hard. Ground crews quickly arrived at the scene and tilted the craft upright and physically pulled the cosmonauts out of the capsule.⇕

To land, the Soyuz drops through Earth's atmosphere. The atmosphere slows the Soyuz. The Soyuz uses parachutes to slow down even more. When the Soyuz gets close to the ground, it fires small rocket engines to slow down more. Even then, the landing is bumpy. The Soyuz lands in the grassy plains of Kazahkstan. After leaving the space station, the Soyuz takes only 3 1/2 hours to land!

Having shed two-thirds of its mass, the Soyuz reaches Entry Interface — a point 400,000 feet above the Earth, where friction due to the thickening atmosphere begins to heat its outer surfaces — three hours after undocking. With only 23 minutes left before it lands on the grassy plains of central Asia, attention in the module turns to slowing its rate of descent. [Source: Jerry Wright, NASA, July 31, 2015]

Eight minutes later, the spacecraft is streaking through the sky at a rate of 755 feet per second. Before it touches down, its speed will slow to only 5 feet per second, and it will land at an even lower speed than that. Several onboard features ensure that the vehicle and crew land safely and in relative comfort.

Four parachutes, deployed 15 minutes before landing, dramatically slow the vehicle's rate of descent. Two pilot parachutes are the first to be released, and a drogue chute attached to the second one follows immediately after. The drogue, measuring 24 square meters (258 square feet) in area, slows the rate of descent from 755 feet per second to 262 feet per second. The main parachute is the last to emerge. It is the largest chute, with a surface area of 10,764 square feet. Its harnesses shift the vehicle's attitude to a 30-degree angle relative to the ground, dissipating heat, and then shift it again to a straight vertical descent prior to landing.

The main chute slows the Soyuz to a descent rate of only 24 feet per second, which is still too fast for a comfortable landing. One second before touchdown, two sets of three small engines on the bottom of the vehicle fire, slowing the vehicle to soften the landing. Further cushioning the impact of landing are the crew seats with their custom-fitted liners. The liners are made preflight, individually molded to fit each person's body — this ensures a tight, comfortable fit when the module lands on the Earth. When crew members were brought to the station aboard the space shuttle, their seat liners were delivered with them and transferred to the existing Soyuz spacecraft as part of crew handover activities.

Rocket Debris and Downrange Areas at Baikonur

According to “Originally, Soviet authorities would make sure that all spent stages were properly recovered and returned to Baikonur. In July 1956, a detached test station, OIS, subordinated to the chief of the armaments service of Baikonur was formed. It was deployed at the village of Ladyzhenka in the Akmolinsk Region (Oblast) and tasked with the recovery of spent rocket stages. In 1971, the unit was moved to Tselinograd, (Astana). [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“In May 1960, the OIS-7 base was formed based in Dzhezkazgan, which would be located in the path of the rockets heading to the Earth orbit with the inclination 51.6 degrees, which would eventually become a trajectory of choice for the manned space program. Yet, another OIS unit was formed in January 1967, with its base in Ust-Kamenogorsk, in the Eastern Kazakhstan Region. It included at least 100 soldiers and sported its own farm.

“However as number of launches grew and the secrecy around rocket technology was relaxed, more and more space junk remained rusting in the grasslands. In the 1970s, the construction of the monumental launch complex for the Energia-Buran system prompted the authorities to "cannibalize" the workforce dedicated to the cleanup of drop zones. The Soviet leadership even considered to disband the task force involved in the effort. As a result, countless debris, often containing toxic propellant components, were littering virgin lands of Kazakhstan. Mixed with rising anti-Russian sentiment and ill-informed public opinion about real dangers of rocket debris, this political and environmental minefield finally exploded in the face of Russian officials on the eve of the Soviet collapse at the beginning of the 1990s.

“In the spring of 1990, a 500-man-strong battalion was formed to jump-start clean up efforts downrange from Baikonur. According to the leader of the group, considerable progress was made in both cleaning the impact zones and in getting the new experience in the utilization of large pieces of debris. The compaign was repeated in 1991, and, according to its participant, resulted in significant cleanup of impact sites.

New Impact and Drop Zones

According to “During 2009, Russia negotiated with Kazakh government a possibility of establishing a new drop zone in Kazakhstan for orbital launches originating in Baikonur and heading north to reach polar orbit. However, Russian interests apparently came into conflict with other economic activities in the region and environmental concerns. On Sept. 23, 2009, Talgat Musabaev, the chairman of the Kazakh space agency, said that after a year-long discussions, Kazakhstan had rejected a Russian request for new drop zones. At the same time, Musabaev left a door open to negotiations, saying that Kazakhstan had continued working on an agreement for a new drop zone, apparently designated Site 120 and covering Kustanai and Aktyubinsk regions of the country. However, according to Musabaev, two sides were still having key disagreements on the functions of Kazakh state institutions in Baikonur. [Source: Anatoly Zak, ]

“The final agreement on the new site was reached only in January 2013, but at an additional price of $460,000 a year for Russia. The document apparently cleared the way for the launch of the Resurs-P satellite. Russian authorities had promised to provide Kazakh government with an environmental impact statement within 30 days after the launch, RIA Novosti reported.

“During 2011 several reports surfaced about negotiations between Roskosmos and officials in Chelyabinsk Oblast of Russia on the establishment of a new drop zone for the first stage of the Strela rocket, scheduled to carry the Kondor radar satellite into orbit in 2012. The impact site was expected to be in Nyazepetrovsk Region between towns of Shemakha, Araslanovo, Skaz and Tabuska. However, as it had previously happened in other regions of Russia and Kazakhstan, concerns over the contamination of the pristine environment became a cause of public protests by local population on February 25, 2011, the official RIA Novosti news agency reported. As a result, local authorities reportedly rejected the proposed agreement at the beginning of March 2011. Two months later, Interfax news agency reported that all work on the drop zone agreement had been stopped as "launches of payloads along this flight path had not being currently planned."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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