Billed as "the Biggest Cosmodrome in the World," Baikonur is where Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin 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. When Baikonur was built it was regarded as so secret that a dummy launch site was built 320 kilometers away to fool high-flying spy planes.

The real location of Baikonur was in a place called Tyuratam. According to russianspaceweb.com: “When Tyuratam's origin could be openly examined in the 1990s by the post-Soviet authors, the center has already became a hot political issue between Russia and Kazakhstan. Not surprisingly, the town's past, (as well as the rest of Kazakh history), looked different from two nations' perspectives. According to Kazakh sources, Tyura-Tam originated as a settlement of cattle growers and its history was rooted deep into the antiquity. In contrast, Russian authors tended to "nationalize" the origin of many Kazakh locations, including that of Tyuratam. Yaroslav Golovanov, in a chapter on Tyuratam's origin in his biography of Sergei Korolev, completely ignored the existence of a Kazakh settlement that gave this non-Russian name to the future test range. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“Golovanov dates the foundation of Tyuratam to 1901, when a water pump was established at the site to refill steam engines on a newly constructed railroad, which connected Russian city of Orenburg to the north with Uzbek city of Tashkent to the south. According to Golovanov, since 1913, rotating teams of "Russian mechanics" had lived permanently in Tyuratam. He estimates the population of the village by the beginning of 1955 at "several dozen" people, living in around 30 houses.

“Golovanov, as majority of Russian authors, didn't mention that before the missile range was founded, a 28-kilometer rail spur was branching out from the Tyuratam station, leading 28 kilometers into the steppe toward a mine pit. Nevertheless, Golovanov referred to Tyuratam as a "junction." Tyuratam's spur was old enough to appear on the German military maps prepared around 1939, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Considerations for a Rocket Test Site in the Soviet Union

According to russianspaceweb.com: “ In mid-1950s, the Soviet rocket engineers raced to develop the first intercontinental missiles — ballistic R-7 and winged Burya. They both required a new test site, since the location of the existing proving ground in Kapustin Yar on the Volga River would not allow "fitting" the flight range of missiles exceeding 1,000-1,500 kilometers. The major requirement for the new test range was dictated by radio-control developers, who needed to deploy an array of guidance antennas, which would have unobstructed "view" of the rocket over hundreds of miles during powered phase of the flight. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“Although the Soviet military has had a privilege of selecting test sites in the past, Sergei Korolev, the head of OKB-1 developing the first ICBM, hoped to influence the decision-making process this time. Korolev advised his deputies Voskresensky and Chertok to get involved in the search, if they, as Korolev put it, "don't want to end up beyond the Arctic Circle." Korolev's associates armed with maps did their own "desktop reconnaissance," starting with the region adjacent to the familiar Kapustin Yar and plotting an 8,000-km trajectory eastward to Kamchatka. They soon saw for themselves that booster stages of a missile like R-7 would fall in populated areas, while one of radio control stations would end up in the Caspian Sea or Iran.

“Planners then "moved" to the Stavropol Region, west of the Caspian Sea, the area of soft climate and popular Russian resorts. To the satisfaction of Korolev's deputies, the booster stages would now fall in the Caspian Sea. However, this idea was immediately ridiculed by the radio-control experts. Ryazansky, the man in charge of flight control system development, reportedly, joked in the phone conversation with Korolev, that he as much as Chertok and Voskresensky would love to fire missiles from Miniralny Vody (a popular Russian resort), however his radio stations can't work over "crowding maintains" of Caucus. Soon, Korolev informed his deputies that they could wrap up their "amateurism," because the government had formed a special commission to deal with the issue.”

Search for a Soviet Rocket Test Site

According to russianspaceweb.com:“ On March 17, 1954, Soviet of Ministers USSR issued a decree assigning Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Medium Machine Building, Ministry of Defense Industry, Ministry of Radiotechnical Industry and Ministry of Aviation Industry to conduct a search for a test site for long-range missiles by January 1, 1955 and report their proposals to the government by March 1, 1955. Vasili Voznuk, the current chief of Kapustin Yar led the special search commission. By the time the commission was formed, NII-4, the central research institute of the Soviet defense ministry led by General Nesterenko, had already conducted a yearlong preliminary study on the organization of the testing for long-range missiles. G. A. Tyulin, deputy director of the NII-4 institute, and the chief of the theoretical department of Chief Artillery Directorate, GAU, oversaw this research. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“Post-Cold War sources identified many locations, which were under consideration for the R-7 testing. According to a veteran of the NII-4 research institute, he was assigned to study flight trajectories for the R-7, originating near the town of Krasnovodsk in the Republic of Turkmenia and the station of Dzhusaly in Kazakhstan with an impact zone in the Kamchatka Peninsula, as well as the launch site near the town of Konosha in the Arkhagelsk Region with an impact zone on the Wrangel Island.

“According to the official history of RKK Energia, the military commission also eyed huge timber clearings left after World War II in Mari Autonomous Region, east of the city of Gorkiy. The idea was abandoned, reportedly, after Korolev insisted on choosing the site as far south as possible in order to increase the range of the missiles with assistance from Earth's rotation.

“The commission also tried "to land" the range on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in Daghestan or near the city of Kharabali in Astrakhan Region on the Volga River. Both places were easily accessible by all means of transportation both had moderate climate and could fit the trajectory of the long-range missiles. Those locations were also dropped over objections by Ryazansky, the head of the R-7 control system development. In the retrospect, Chertok criticized the decision to reject Caspian locations given the fact that radio-control system itself was soon to be abandoned in favor of inertial systems.

Selecting Tyuratam (Baikonaur)

According to russianspaceweb.com: “Despite the attractiveness of other sites, at the time, the planners had to agree to the least attractive option from all but radio-control engineers' point of view: the right bank of the Syr Darya River in Kazakhstan between towns of Kazalinsk and Dzhusaly. This sparsely populated and remote region was linked to industrial centers of Russia, by the Kazakhstanskaya Railroad (later renamed Western-Kazakhstan Railroad). [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“According to a CIA veteran, who participated in the search for the new Soviet test range, at the Tyuratam junction, a single rail line was branching from the main railway, heading 28 kilometers into the steppe toward an open pit mine, which could, theoretically, be used as a flame deflector of a future launch pad. The western sources also suggested the mine was originally excavated by the GULAG prisoners. However, the Russian veterans of the early test range construction in Tyuratam insist that the flame trench for the first launch pad was excavated from scratch.

“The official history of RKK Energia confirmed that the rail spur and the quarry existed prior to the foundation of the missile range. In fact, according to this source, the existence of the spur was one of the factors, the Tyuratam junction was selected as the site of the future missile range. In any case, even with the railway in place, the good news would end there. The climate in the region featured dust storms and temperatures up to 50C degrees in the summer, snowstorms and cold as low as minus 25C degrees in the winter. Health service also warned about the danger of plague in the area spread by numerous rodents. Practically no infrastructure or housing was available. According to Golovanov, Voznyuk consulted with Ryazansky, Barmin (launch complex developer) and Korolev. The latter was, reportedly, strongly in favor of the Kazakhstan site. In the contrary, Heppenheimer makes a claim, with no reference to any source, that "Korolev had placed this site at the bottom of his list of choices, but he was overruled."

“In January 1955, a special surveillance team of the NII-4 institute and led by General Voznyuk was dispatched to the nearby station of Dzhusaly. Equipped with off-road vehicles, the group conducted surveillance trips in the surrounding areas. At the Tyuratam station, the team found three sidings, a water tower and three one-floor buildings. According to one account, the members of the group stuck a piece of rail at the site of the future launch pad.

“Voznyuk made his recommendations on the Kazakh site to Marshall of Artillery Nedelin, overseeing the missile development program for the Ministry of Defense. In his turn, Nedelin announced the findings at the top-secret meeting at Dzerzhinsky Academy of Military Engineering to a number of high-ranking officials among them Lieutenant General Grigorenko, the chief of Main Directorate of Special Construction for the Ministry of Defense (GUSS MO). The latter, apparently, was less than excited about the prospect of building an expansive facility in the remote and inhospitable region, however had no other choice but to comply.

“As an odd sign of things to come, the Soviet of Ministers of Kazakhstan was suspiciously slow to approve the transfer of lands over to the Soviet Ministry of Defense, the procedure seen by Russian officials as a "pure formality." It took Korolev's visit to Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in Alma-Ata and a call from one of the Central Committee members to the Soviet of Ministers of the Kazakh Republic to get "formal" paperwork signed.”

Approval of the Baikonur Program

According to russianspaceweb.com: “The general development of the Tyuratam project was delegated to the Central Design Institute of the Special Construction of the Ministry of Defense (TsIPSS MO) in Moscow. The institute's veteran Alexei Nitochkin, the author of the Kapustin Yar layout, was appointed a chief-engineer of the Tyuratam range development. The institute was a design arm of Main Directorate of Special Construction of the Ministry of Defense (GUSS MO), which in its turn reported to the Deputy Defense Minister for Military Construction and Housing. By the end of 1954, GUSS MO has already finalized the following structure and responsibilities for the development of the Tyuratam site: [Source: russianspaceweb.com ]

The findings made by Voznyuk commission and the formal proposal to the government to develop the site in Kazakhstan were officially presented in the memo issued on February 4, 1955. The decision was finalized during one of the Politburo meetings at the beginning of 1955. In the course of the meeting, Marshall Zhukov went through the formality of naming the sites under consideration and proposed Kazakhstan. “Nobody questioned Zhukov's judgment and vote was routine and unanimous. According to Golovanov, Khrushchev, was the only person among those present at the meeting, who asked where exactly the new test range would be situated. "Tyuratam junction," Zhukov replied.

On February 12, 1955, Soviet of Ministers USSR issued a decree # 292-181 entitled "On the new test site of the Ministry of Defense USSR"...The site was officially named Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 (NIIP-5). In April 1955, Marshal Nedelin, who had official rank of the Deputy to the Minister of Defense for Special Armaments, appointed General Alexei Nesterenko to be a chief of yet-to-be-built missile range in Tyuratam.

“Several other branches of the Soviet Ministry of Defense were also directly involved in NIIP-5 operations. Deputy Minister of Defense for Communications oversaw the deployment of a vast network of phone lines and radio-transmitting equipment at the range, while the Air Force commander (who was also Deputy to the Minister of Defense) would manage the airport serving Tyuratam. The Ministry of Transportation Lines and Army's Railroad Forces were responsible for construction and maintenance of rail lines of NIIP-5. Finally, Kazakhenergo, Kazakhstan energy authority, had to build network of power lines to supply the range with electricity. In the interim, special fuel-generator trains would serve the range. On June 2, 1955, Chief of Staff of the Soviet Ministry of Defense approved the organizational structure of a new test range near Tyuratam. This date would later become an official "birthday" of Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Early Construction at Tyuratam (Baikonaur)

According to russianspaceweb.com: “On January 12, 1955, the chief of the Tyuratam junction, Anatoly Lebedev received a telegram directing him to detach two cars from a Tashkent-bound train. This train brought the first military construction crew led by Lieutenant Igor Denezhkin from the 130th Directorate of Engineering Works (130 UIR). [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“At the end of March 1955, trains with construction crews started arriving. On April 10, 1955, the chief of construction Shubnikov and his directorate arrived in Tyuratam. By the end of May, all three brigades assigned to the project and headed by Permyatin, Durov and Khalabudenko were deployed at the site. The small train station in Tyuratam was avalanched with trains carrying people and materials for the construction. Since no warehouses existed, the unloaded cargo formed "walls" on both sides of the railroad near Tyuratam. Tyuratam-bound trains also jammed adjacent stations. Only by the end of May 1955, the traffic could be cleared with the completion of a siding in Tyuratam. At the same time, a concrete-producing plant was completed on the opposite side from the railroad station building in Tyuratam.

“On May 5, the housing construction started at the Site 10 with the foundation of the first temporary wooden building by Permyatin's crew, which was intended for military headquarters. Despite terrible living conditions of the military personnel, the active construction of permanent housing for the range personnel had not started until 1956. Soldiers and officers of engineering units had to survive for months in dugouts and tents. During 1955, huge dugout "towns" sprawled near the Tyuratam station and along the Syr Darya River. Anti-epidemic service headed by A.L. Pinskiy had to involve every soldier into large-scale operations of anti-rodent spraying over surrounding steppe to minimize the risk of cholera, plague and typhus. Only in April of 1955, "laundry crew" arrived in Tyuratam, and sometimes later — a special laundry train, lavatory tanks, sewage systems and the cars with disinfecting showers to fight fleas. The range administration also organized the supply of meat from the cattle farms stretched along the Syr Darya River. Finally, every construction battalion was ordered to start a garden and a pig farm.

“In June 1955, the construction of the large assembly building started at the Site 2. On June 25, Durov's crew started development of the industrial zone at the Site 9. By the end of July 1955, more than three thousand military construction workers were erecting facilities around Tyuratam (according to another source: 5,000 workers). In July 1955, a communication link between Tyuratam and supply bases in Moscow and Tashkent had been established. At the end of the same month, a survey team from Moscow hammered markers into the ground around the future launch pad; the excavations, however, could not be started until September 15, 1955.

“Excavations for the R-7 launch complex started “ in September, 1955. In addition to a rail way and hard-surface automobile road, the construction of a power line and a water line from Syr Darya shore to the launch complex have started. To supply water to the launch pad, the pump station and two 500-cubical-meter water reservoirs were founded on a dominating hill, just north of Tyuratam. A pair of 1,000-cubical-meter reservoirs and a pair of 3,000-cubical-meter reservoirs were built farther north along the road to the launch complex, and, finally, three 3,000-cubical-meter underground water tanks were built just south of the launch pad.

“By the end of 1955, 20 military units were deployed in Tyuratam and its population continued to grow, however, for several years many facilities of the range had remained understaffed. As late as 1959, the commanders of many units, operating brand-new power station, oxygen-producing plant and communications site, had to fight with special commissions over each staff position.

Testing Personnel Arrive at Tyuratam (Baikonaur)

According to russianspaceweb.com: On July 28, 1955, “the first train with military test personnel of the range arrived. On August 18, the 217th separate engineering and mining battalion (217 OISB) arrived to Tyuratam station by train from Semipalatinsk nuclear range. As its commander Sergei Alekseenko remembers (51) in an hour after arrival, he and his personnel boarded trucks and traveled for about two and half hours into the steppe, where they were dropped and left only with their backpacks and one-day rations of water and food. When trucks, which dropped them in the desert disappeared beyond the horizon, the arrivals saw no trace of life anywhere their sight could reach. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“Soldiers slept right on the ground using their coats as blankets. Yet, Alekseenko tried to convince his personnel that they are still better of here than in Semipalatinsk, where they had to endure similar "landings" several times a year, plus exposure to radiation from nuclear tests. "Look," he remembers saying, "this is more like a resort: no work plans, no bosses, and, what's most important, no barbwire fences, no mine fields. Complete freedom." Only on a third day of the "freedom," when the soldiers already exhausted their rations of water and food, the trucks reappeared bringing water, food, and mats for mattresses and anti-rodent chemicals.

“Alekseenko brigade landed just 3.5 kilometers south of the future R-7 launch complex, the most crucial construction zone in the Tyuratam project. The soldiers of the brigade spent about a week disinfecting the area around yet-to-be-built launch complex. By September 1955, Alekseenko brigade joined other engineering units erecting major facilities of the missile range.

Building the Residential Areas at Baikonur

According to russianspaceweb.com: “On May 5, 1955, Soviet military workers started building a town adjacent to the Kazakh village of Tyuratam, however the new settlement was closed to the local population. As a hub of the top-secret NIIP-5 missile test range, the new settlement was designated Site 10. The first two temporary wooden buildings, completed by October 1955, served as military headquarters and barracks. One of them became known among the Soviet officers as "Kazanskiy Vokzal" — a sarcastic reference to the Kazan train station in Moscow, famous for its crowded and messy atmosphere. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“On June 25, 1955, an industrial zone, originally including a cement-producing factory, was founded at Site 9, directly adjacent to the future residential area at Site 10. Another plant, producing rocket propellant, was founded north of Tyuratam at Site 3. On November 7, 1955, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the first trees were planted along a future alley at Site 10, later known as Soldier's Park.

“During the early years of the cosmodrome, many pioneers of the test range, including soldiers and junior officers lived in tents and dugouts. Luckier were officers with families, who would be usually accommodated in Kazakh villages along the Moscow-Tashkent railroad.

“Despite horrible living conditions, the active construction at Site 10 did not take off until 1956. Bricks for the foundations of the first permanent buildings had to be brought in from sites hundreds of kilometers away, however, locally quarried construction materials were used to build top floors. The early facilities at Site 10 included a canteen, military barracks, stores, a four-story school, a beach on the Syr Darya, a park and a wooden cinema. Until beginning of 1957, when the original water supply line was built, movable tanks were used to deliver water from the Syr Darya to the city.

“In May 1957, workers completed the yearlong construction of an air-strip near Tyuratam, which could receive transport and passenger planes. Before that, engineers and officers primarily traveled to the test range by rail and they often had to get off in the nearby town of Dzhusaly, because passenger trains did not stop in Tyuratam. Later, trains started making one or two-minute stops at the local station.

U-2 Spy Planes and Trying to Keep Tyuratam (Baikonaur) Secret

According to russianspaceweb.com: “Although an army of people was involved in the early construction in the first ICBM missile range near Tyuratam, the Soviet security service were determined to maintain maximum secrecy around the project. Letters to soldiers and officers employed in the construction had to be addressed to Moscow-400, or Leningrad-300 and in their communications with friends and relatives personnel was strictly prohibited to give any details, which would hint about the location or the purpose of the site. In fact, even high-ranking construction managers in Tyuratam, have not been officially told what they were building, and they were instructed not to ask any questions beyond their direct responsibilities. In most cases the construction personnel had access only to the facilities they were directly assigned to work on.[Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

The US intelligence suspected the existence of a missile test site near Aral Sea around 1957. It became one of the major search targets of the U-2 spy planes flying over Russia. The U-2 brought first aerial photos of the test range in the summer of 1957. Using German military maps of the Soviet Union, CIA was able to correlate the area with the town of Tyuratam. A 1939 map showed a rail line branching out from Tyuratam junction and leading 28 kilometers in the steppe. More photos of Tyuratam facility, including a well known shot of R-7 launch pad, have been made in 1959.

“According to the NIIP-5 veteran, the Soviet intelligence knew about upcoming F.H. Powers' overflight in May 1960. In April 1960, an antiaircraft defense brigade was rushed from Leningrad to Tyuratam. The brigade's missiles arrived at the cargo terminal of Site 2 and were deployed at the facility No. 38 and near R-7's assembly building and were ordered to be in battle readiness by April 30.

“As F.H. Powers took off from the base in Pakistan on May 1, 1960, the NIIP-5 test range was put on high alert. According to a Russian source, (51 p. 161) Tyuratam air-defense crews activated their guidance radar too early, allowing the approaching U-2 pilot to detect the danger and bypass Tyuratam; the Western source, however, claims that cloud cover prevented Powers from flying over the site. (34) In any case, the plane was shot down later over Urals.

“After the U-2 fiasco, the US switched to the space-based reconnaissance. Also, electronic tracking stations set up along the borders with the Soviet Union, notably Tacksman 2 in northeastern Iran, would allow to monitor the launches until they disappear over Eastern Russia. Tacksman 2 was closed down in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. (31 p. 31) The Soviets could do little to camouflage their activities in Tyuratam; nevertheless the center remained a top-secret site for decades. Today, hundreds of photos of the USSR, including those of its launch facilities made by the CIA's Corona spacecraft in the course of the Cold War have been declassified.

Myth of Baikonur

According to russianspaceweb.com: “On April 12, a Vostok spacecraft with Major Yuri Gagarin onboard blasted off from Pad 1, opening the era of manned space flight. Along with enormous propaganda victory, Gagarin's mission brought a headache to Kremlin leaders. In order to register Vostok's flight as a world record with the International Aviation Federation, the USSR was required to name the launch site. Despite earlier U-2 flights over Tyuratam, identifying NIIP-5, a top-secret defense facility, was out of the question. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“The official policy developed over the years by the Soviet ideologists was not to confirm any unwelcome information on the Soviet affairs, no matter how widely known and well proven, if this information originated in the West. Instead, in the official telegram to the Federation, Aviation Sport Commission of the Central Aero-club of the USSR claimed that Vostok was launched from the "Cosmodrome" located near Baikonur. So, it was registered on July 18, 1961. In the post-Soviet period, several Russian officials claimed the credit for choosing the village of Baikonur, as the "cover-up site" for the first manned space launch. Among them was Vladimir Barmin, the designer of the launch complex for the R-7 missile.

“The "real" town of Baikonur was located 250-300 kilometers northeast from Tyuratam and could be found on the Soviet maps of the period. According to various sources the name means in Kazakh either "the master with the light brown hair," or "brown-rich" (the area was known to be rich in brownish copper, which was supposedly mined by GULAG prisoners as late as end of the Stalinist period). The town was picked as the origin of the Vostok mission because it was the first identifiable location downrange from the launch site.

“The Russian sources also said that in pre-revolutionary time, the artisan named Nikifor Nikitin was exiled to Baikonur for the "seditious talk about flight to the Moon!" Baikonur continued to be a place of exile in the Soviet time, when political prisoners, reportedly former army officers, worked copper and coal mines in the area. In 1917, the mines of Baikonur were connected by a narrow-gauge rail line with the towns Karsakpai and Dzhezkazkan (future landing area for the Soviet manned spacecraft). Upon death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953, the GULAG camps in Baikonur were abandoned. Ironically, the experiments with nuclear blasts in the upper atmosphere were reportedly launched from the area.

Truth About Baikonur Revealed

According to russianspaceweb.com: “Soon after Gagarin's mission, the name "Cosmodrome Baikonur" started appearing in the Soviet press. As time proved, such seemingly senseless deception would not fool many in the USSR and even less in the West. However, it did generate an awkward double identity for the biggest Russian space center. "Little Encyclopedia" of space flight published in the USSR in 1968, described Baikonur as "one of the biggest Cosmodromes of the USSR located in Karaganda Region." The 1985, the new and expanded edition of the Encyclopedia "placed" Baikonur into the Kzul-Orda Region. This is wrong for "original" Baikonur, but correct for Tyuratam![Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

A veil of secrecy started lifting from Tyuratam during the 1960s and 1970s, when a number of East-European and French officials, including President Charles De Gaulle, visited the site. Large-scale propaganda spectacles were staged at the test range to conceal its problems or hide details about its activities.

“Most of all, the Soviet authorities wanted to comuflage military nature of the "cosmodrome." During visits of NASA officials to the site in the eve of the Soyuz-Apollo docking mission in mid-1970s, all officers, who could be within reach of the US delegation were ordered to report to duty in civilian clothes. Civilian clothes were urgently issued even to rank-and-file soldiers, however, little could be done about their shaved heads! According to the veterans of the range, this type of "metamorphosis" was practiced in Tyuratam as late as 1988, during the preparation for the Phobos mission, which carried a wide array of foreign payloads toward Mars.

Growth at Baikonur Between 1960 and 1990

According to russianspaceweb.com: “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. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“Even bigger development in the town was planned, but never implemented. According to one Baikonur veteran, in 1967, Evgeni Moiseev, the chief of a test directorate responsible for the lunar program, described to his subordinates an impressive development plan for Site 10, aimed to support the lunar landing effort. The plan envisioned 10 new residential districts, a bridge spanning the Syr Darya and a residential area across the river, which would be open to outsiders and would feature non-secret industry. Modern roads, a park with an artificial lake and a restaurant would adorn the city. According to another source, the construction of a nuclear power station in the area was also under consideration to address ever present problem of energy shortage. The idea was reportedly dropped over the objections of the local administration, leaving the town vulnerable to frequent failures in the local power grid. (90)

“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.”

“Apparently, sometimes in the 1980s, the Soviet government, fed up with the problems of transporting thousands of people dozens of kilometers across an inhospitable desert, devised plans to move some of "labor-intensive" activities in the vicinity of the residential area. The original reason for the construction of the launch complexes far away from the main railroad and from each other had been secrecy and safety in handling nuclear warheads, as well as survivability of the facilities in case of a nuclear attack. However, by 1983, the last nuclear-tipped missiles left Baikonur, while the true location of the center was no longer a secret not only to foreign intelligence services, but also to any interested observer. The construction of brand-new processing facilities started at the edge of the town, however, as the space program took a back seat among government's economic priorities, the project turned into a "dolgostroi" — a Russian term for never-ending construction.”

Hard Times at Baikonur After the Soviet Union Break Up

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]

According to russianspaceweb.com: “In the wake of the Soviet Union collapse in 1991, the town's infrastructure began to crumble. Failures of the water-supply system often left the residents without even the rust-colored water they had used to in the previous years. Entire districts in the town were abandoned and fell to the bands of thugs and vandals. Many facilities, including prominent Officers' Club, facing the city's central square, burned. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“During two visits to Baikonur in 1993, the author of this essay got a taste of Baikonur's inhospitable climate as well as of the town's disastrous economic state. In midsummer, temperatures in the non-airconditioned rooms of the notorious Tsentralnaya (Central) hotel would exceed 30 C degrees, even after dusk. In a struggle to get some sleep, inventive reporters would put pillows in refrigerators and soak sheets and blankets in water dripping from the tap. Many daily routines, such as taking a shower and brushing one's teeth would turn into complex procedures, since swallowing the tap water had to be avoided due to the risk of hepatitis and other diseases.

“However, life for the full-time inhabitants of the town was way more tragic. In the winter of 1993, a large group of Russian officials and reporters, which had arrived for the launch of a new mission to Mir, instead witnessed a protest by local residents on the town's central square. The visitors to a local post office during this period would find it packed with residents, waiting in line for a few pay phones to make long-distance calls to their friends and relatives on the "continent." One could overhear the frantic pleas of officers' wives, trying to arrange their escape from the dreaded place, peppered with colorful descriptions of the hardships and hopelessness of their lives.

Rebirth of Baikonur in the 1990s

According to russianspaceweb.com: “In 1995, in accordance with an agreement between the Russian and Kazakh governments, a Russian civilian administration was formed in the city of Baikonur. It took responsibility for the industrial and residential areas of the town and for the remnants of its infrastructure. Genady Dmitrienko was appointed a mayor of the city on January 4, 1995. Since January 1, 1996, the town has officially been under Russian economic regulations. The "Baikonurenergo" energy directorate and the ZhKKh residential and communal directorate have been formed within the town's administration. n 1996, the Russian federal budget allocated 761 billion rubles to the city of Baikonur, but only 296 billion was actually provided. Due to a lack of funds, all residential construction or upgrades in the energy-supply infrastructure was stopped. At the time, around half of the facilities in the city required repairs. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“The situation in the town started improving slowly in the second half of the 1990s, as money accompanying commercial launch activities, made its way to Baikonur. By the turn of the 21st century, streets of the town looked inhabited again, stores and communal services reanimated, local bazaar flooded with everything from fresh vegetables to cloth to electronics and video cassettes. An open-door restaurant in the bazaar offered delicious shish kebab with Finnish vodka — in stark contrast to the poison-like soups in the local Soviet-style buffets just few years earlier.

“Along with the recovery of the old, Baikonur saw new things, which have been unimaginable recently: a local post office offering Internet access, the local newspaper, a magazine and a local TV channel, covering the life of the city, a prayer house in the ground floor of an apartment building.

“A new hotel, called the Sputnik, catering to the foreign visitors of the launch center, offered conveniences also unknown before. Among them were such "firsts" for Baikonur as irrigated and trimmed lawns, a large swimming pool, a western-style gym, perfectly purified water, and, reportedly, ... "full-body massage" offered upon request. The $250-per-night rate for Sputnik's rooms and its gated property ensure that the hotel is essentially reserved for the foreign guests of the cosmodrome. On the eve of major manned launches, in the Sputnik's bar one can see a US astronaut, a French space official, or a British reporter, drinking Stoli and flirting with Russian women.

“In the meantime, on the central square of the city a former officer's club has been converted into a discotheque. Open to locals and foreign visitors alike, the place has become a center of Baikonur's nightlife. Local folklore abound with stories about broken hearts and stolen valets in and around this discotheque, however, the majority Baikonur veterans agree that walking around at night in the town has become a lot safer in the past five years.

Moving Baikonur’s Military Facilities

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, Eurasia.net, April 19, 2002 ]

According to russianspaceweb.com: “Although Baikonur has always been known around the world as the launch site of Russia's space missions, from its outset in 1955 and until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the primary purpose of this center was to test liquid-fueled ballistic missiles. The official (and secret) name of the center was State Test Range No. 5 or 5 GIK (GIK-5). It remained under control of the Soviet and Russian Ministry of Defense until the second half of the 1990s, when the Russian civilian space agency, Roskosmos, and its industrial contractors started taking over individual facilities.

“In mid-2006, head of Roskosmos Anatoly Perminov said that last Russian military personnel would leave Baikonur for Plesetsk by the end of 2007. In reality, the process was much slower and much more painful for rank-and-file members of the military, who often faced numerous problems when repatriating from Kazakhstan to Russia, especially in obtaining housing. Nevertheless, on April 30, 2008, in one of his last moves during the second term as president, Vladimir Putin signed a decree disbanding GIK-5. Eight months later, on Dec. 16, a new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a decree on the consolidation of Baikonur's infrastructure. It resulted in the formation of the Yuzhny ("southern") space center led by Sergei Smirnov and comprising former assets and workforce of various subcontractors, which served the facility, including KB Motor, KBOM, KBTM, KBTKhM, NPF Kosmotrans and OKB Vympel. The consolidation promised to reduce unnecessary duplication and reduce the cost of operating the facility. In turn, Roskosmos, announced a formation of a special directorate responsible for running Baikonur.

“In mid-2008, Russian space officials said that between 2005 and 2008, a total of 30 military units with 2,000 members of military personnel had been disbanded, as the center's facilities were transferred to Roskosmos. At the beginning of December 2008, Russian military was destroying classified hardware and obsolete pyrotechnic equipment in the last acts of the demilitarization of the center, Interfax news agency reported. As of Jan. 1, 2009, the only military installations remaining in Baikonur would be an air squadron based at the Krainy airfield and a directorate responsible for R-36M UTTKh and UR-100NU missiles.

Russian-Kazakh Relations Over Baikonur

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. 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.

According to russianspaceweb.com: “On July 2, 2005, Russia and Kazakhstan reached a long-term agreement for the rent of Baikonur by the Russian Federation. Russia agreed to pay $115 million for the rent of the space center, several more million dollars were required per year for the maintenance and development of the facility. Despite existence of this document, five years later, Russian space officials still complained about various stumbling blocks in the usage of Baikonur for the goals of the Russian space program. In September 2007, a crash of the Proton rocket in the Karaganda Region resulted in a two-month ban on all missions of the Russian workhore launcher and in a $61 million compensation bill from Kazakhstan. Only on May 7, 2010, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev ratified an agreement with Russia on joint operation of Baikonur. As many as 50 interim agreements, covering various aspects of the Russian-Kazakh cooperation on Baikonur, had been required in between. [Source: Anatoly Zak, russianspaceweb.com ]

“On Oct. 7, 2011, the head of the Russian space agency Vladimir Popovkin told the Russian Duma (parliament) that Kazakhstan lifted its ban on launches of Russian ballistic missiles from Baikonur, clearing the way to resumptions of such missions as early as November 2011. However in the Spring of 2012, another legal hurdle postponed the launch of a Soyuz-2 rocket with the Metop-2 satellite, followed by a delay of the Kanopus satellite. All these launches heading north would need a new drop zone in the populated northwest area of Kazakhstan in order to reach polar orbit. Moscow now hoped to get yet another long-term permission of the Kazakh government to secure this site. However, Kazakhstan found the draft of the agreement delivered by Russia on May 25 drastically different from the version of the document that was agreed at the end of 2011. The problem escalated to become one of the topics at the Russian-Kazakh summit on June 7, 2012. In the wake of the meeting between Putin and Nazarbaev, official media in both countries declared a resolution of the problem to mutual satisfaction. Russia agreed to pay $460 thousand per year for the rent of the new drop zone in the Aktubinsk and Kustanai regions — a real bargain comparing to the original asking price of $2 million. However, according to industry sources, a signing of a formal agreement on the issue had to be left until the meeting of prime-ministers Medvedev and Masimov in St. Petersburg on June 15.

“At the time, Russian officials also complained that Kazakhstan was yet to legally recognize Russian investments into the local infrastructure despite more than a billion dollars spent by the Kremlin for the task. The Russian side also lacked a practical legal mechanism to remove unused infrastructure from the official list of rented facilities, leading to extra maintenance and security expenses.

“Still, in 2012, the Russian government planned to spend 8.2 billion rubles until November 2015 for the upgrades of infrastructure at Baikonur. The plan reportedly included the construction of a new vehicle assembly building. However in 2014, as the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome was approaching its peak, Russian Finance Ministry made its first attempt to cut the entire 2.5-billion-ruble budget originally earmarked for Baikonur infrastructure in 2016.

“Political and financial issues around Baikonur were prompting Russia to move ahead with its plans to build an alternative site in the Far East. Facing possible end of Russian presence in Baikonur, the Kazakh government looked for potential future users of the center, which reportedly included ESA and Israel. This plan had relied on the use of the Ukrainian Zenit rocket, until it also fell through in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014.

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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