Baikonur Cosmodrome

About Baikonur Cosmodrome

The Baikonur Cosmodrome is a spaceport in an area of southern Kazakhstan leased to Russia. The Cosmodrome is the world’s first spaceport for orbital and human launches and the largest (in area) operational space launch facility. All crewed Russian spaceflights are launched from Baikonur.

The spaceport is in the desert steppe of Baikonur, about 200 kilometres (120 mi) east of the Aral Sea and north of the river Syr Darya. It is near the Tyuratam railway station and is about 90 metres (300 ft) above sea level. The spaceport is currently leased by the Kazakh Government to Russia until 2050 and is managed jointly by the Roscosmos State Corporation and the Russian Aerospace Forces. The shape of the area leased is an ellipse, measuring 90 kilometres (56 mi) east–west by 85 kilometres (53 mi) north–south, with the cosmodrome at the centre.

Baikonur Cosmodrome was established on 2 June 1955 by the USSR Ministry of Defence. It was originally built as the base of operations for the Soviet space program. Both Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and Vostok 1, the first human spaceflight, were launched from Baikonur. The launch pad used for both missions was renamed Gagarin’s Start, in honour of Russian Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, pilot of Vostok 1 and first human in space. Under the current Russian space program, Baikonur remains a busy spaceport, with numerous commercial, military and scientific missions being launched annually.

History

The Soviet government issued the decree for Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 (NIIP-5; Russian: 5-й Научно-Исследовательский Испытательный Полигон, Pjáty Naúchno-Isslédovatel’skii Ispytátel’nyi Poligón) on 12 February 1955. It was actually founded on 2 June 1955, originally a test center for the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 Semyorka. NIIP-5 was soon expanded to include launch facilities for space flights. The site was selected by a commission led by General Vasily Voznyuk, influenced by Sergey Korolyov, the Chief Designer of the R-7 ICBM, and soon the man behind the Soviet space program. It had to be surrounded by plains, as the radio control system of the rocket required (at the time) receiving uninterrupted signals from ground stations hundreds of kilometres away. Additionally, the missile trajectory had to be away from populated areas. Also, it is advantageous to place space launch sites closer to the equator, as the surface of the Earth has higher rotational speed in such areas. Taking these constraints into consideration, the commission chose Tyuratam, a village in the heart of the Kazakh Steppe. The expense of constructing the launch facilities and the several hundred kilometres of new road and train lines made the Cosmodrome one of the most costly infrastructure projects undertaken by the Soviet Union. A supporting town was built around the facility to provide housing, schools, and infrastructure for workers. It was raised to city status in 1966 and named Leninsk (Russian: Ленинск).

The American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane found and photographed the Tyuratam missile test range for the first time on 5 August 1957.

History

Soviet era

The Soviet government issued the decree for Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 (NIIP-5; Russian: 5-й Научно-Исследовательский Испытательный Полигон, Pjáty Naúchno-Isslédovatel’skii Ispytátel’nyi Poligón) on 12 February 1955. It was actually founded on 2 June 1955, originally a test center for the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 Semyorka. NIIP-5 was soon expanded to include launch facilities for space flights. The site was selected by a commission led by General Vasily Voznyuk, influenced by Sergey Korolyov, the Chief Designer of the R-7 ICBM, and soon the man behind the Soviet space program. It had to be surrounded by plains, as the radio control system of the rocket required (at the time) receiving uninterrupted signals from ground stations hundreds of kilometres away. Additionally, the missile trajectory had to be away from populated areas. Also, it is advantageous to place space launch sites closer to the equator, as the surface of the Earth has higher rotational speed in such areas. Taking these constraints into consideration, the commission chose Tyuratam, a village in the heart of the Kazakh Steppe. The expense of constructing the launch facilities and the several hundred kilometres of new road and train lines made the Cosmodrome one of the most costly infrastructure projects undertaken by the Soviet Union. A supporting town was built around the facility to provide housing, schools, and infrastructure for workers. It was raised to city status in 1966 and named Leninsk (Russian: Ленинск).

The American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane found and photographed the Tyuratam missile test range for the first time on 5 August 1957.

Name

There are conflicting sources about origins of the name Baikonur. Some sources say that the name was deliberately chosen in 1961 (around the time of Gagarin’s flight) to misdirect the Western Bloc to a place about 320 kilometres (200 mi) northeast of the launch center, the small mining town of Baikonur near Jezkazgan.

Other sources state that Baikonur was name of the Tyuratam region even before the cosmodrome existed. Leninsk, the closed city built to support the cosmodrome, was renamed Baikonur on 20 December 1995 by Boris Yeltsin.

Environmental impact

Russian scientist Afanasiy Ilich Tobonov researched mass animal deaths in the 1990s and concluded that the mass deaths of birds and wildlife in the Sakha Republic were noted only along the flight paths of space rockets launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Dead wildlife and livestock were usually incinerated, and the participants in these incinerations, including Tobonov himself, his brothers and inhabitants of his native village of Eliptyan, commonly died from stroke or cancer. In 1997, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation changed the flight path and removed the ejected rocket stages near Nyurbinsky District, Russia.

Scientific literature collected data that indicated adverse effects of rockets on the environment and the health of the population. UDMH, a fuel used in Russian rocket engines, is highly toxic. It is one of the reasons for acid rains and cancers in the local population, near the cosmodrome. Valery Yakovlev, a head of the laboratory of ecosystem research of the State scientific-production union of applied ecology Kazmechanobr, notes: Scientists have established the extreme character of the destructive influence of the Baikonur space center on environment and population of the region: 11 000 tons of space scrap metal, polluted by especially toxic UDMH is still laying on the falling grounds. Scrap recovery is part of the local economy.

Importance

Many historic flights lifted off from Baikonur: the first operational ICBM; the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957; the first spacecraft to travel close to the Moon, Luna 1, on 2 January 1959; the first crewed and orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin on 12 April 1961; and the flight of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. 14 cosmonauts of 13 other nations, such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, India and France, started their journeys from here as well under the Interkosmos program. In 1960, a prototype R-16 ICBM exploded before launch, killing over 100 people. Baikonur is also the site from which Venera 9 and Mars 3 were launched.

Russian era

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian space program continued to operate from Baikonur under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia wanted to sign a 99-year lease for Baikonur, but agreed to a US$115 million annual lease of the site for 20 years with an option for a 10-year extension. On 8 June 2005, the Russian Federation Council ratified an agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan extending Russia’s rent term of the spaceport until 2050. The rent price—which remained fixed at US$115,000,000 per year – is the source of a long-running dispute between the two countries. In an attempt to reduce its dependency on Baikonur, Russia is constructing the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast.

Baikonur has been a major part of Russia’s contribution to the International Space Station (ISS), as it is the only spaceport from which Russian missions to the ISS are launched. It is primarily the border’s position (but to a lesser extent Baikonur’s position at about the 46th parallel north) that led to the 51.6° orbital inclination of the ISS; the lowest inclination that can be reached by Soyuz boosters launched from Baikonur without flying over China. With the conclusion of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011, Baikonur became the sole launch site used for crewed missions to the ISS until the launch of Crew Dragon Demo-2 in 2020.

In 2019, Gagarin’s Start hosted three crewed launches, in March, July and September, before being modernised for the new Soyuz-2 rocket with a planned first launch of 2023. The final launch from Gagarin’s Start took place 25 September 2019.

Baikonur Railway

All Baikonur’s logistics are based on its own intra-site 1,520 mm (4 ft 11+2732 ingauge railway network, which is the largest industrial railway on the planet. The railway is used for all stages of launch preparation, and all spacecraft are transported to the launchpads by the special Schnabel cars. Once part of the Soviet Railroad Troops, the Baikonur Railway is now served by a dedicated civilian state company. There are several rail links connecting the Baikonur Railway to the public railway of Kazakhstan and the rest of the world.

Baikonur airports

The Baikonur Cosmodrome has two on-site multi-purpose airports, serving both the personnel transportation needs and the logistics of space launches (including the delivery of the spacecraft by planes). There are scheduled passenger services from Moscow to the smaller Krayniy Airport (IATABXYICAOUAOL), which however are not accessible to the public. The larger Yubileyniy Airport (Юбилейный аэропорт) (IATAUAON) was where the Buran orbiter was transported to Baikonur on the back of the Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft.

Baikonur Museum

Baikonur Cosmodrome has a small museum, next to two small cottages, once residences of the rocket engineer Sergei Korolev and the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Both cottages are part of the museum complex and have been preserved. The museum is home to a collection of space artifacts. A restored test artifact from the Soviet Buran programme sits next to the museum entrance. The vehicle that flew a single orbital test mission in 1988 was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002; For a complete list of Buran artifacts, see Buran (spacecraft).

The museum also houses photographs related to the cosmodrome’s history, including images of all cosmonauts. Every crew of every expedition launched from Baikonur leaves behind a signed crew photograph that is displayed behind the glass.

Baikonur’s museum holds many objects related to Gagarin, including the ground control panel from his flight, his uniforms, and soil from his landing site, preserved in a silver container. One of the museum rooms also holds an older version of the Soyuz descent capsule.

In 2021, the Baikonur space complex was named as one of the top 10 tourist destinations in Kazakhstan.

location on map

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