Perhaps one of the contributing factors that caused me to become a borderline Russophile is their Space Program. People like me cut their teeth on forbidden, threatening places like the old Soviet Union. The deeply arcane, yet highly promoted Soviet Space Program locked this interest into place.
The Russian counterpart to NASA’s Cape Canaveral, the Baikonur Cosmodrome has long been on my bucket list of fascinating places to someday visit. With regular Soyuz missions to the International Space Station, the Cosmodrome fascination has increased by several notches. A highlight to my life would be to view a launch from there in person.
The world was surprised when Laika became the first canine to be placed in orbit. Sputnik 2 carried Laika into Space way back in November of 1957. I wasn’t even in kindergarten, then, but I heard about Laika and wondered about her. In early April of 1961, I was a grade school pupil. That’s when the world was astonished at the news of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human being to enter Outer Space.
It was April 12, 1961 at 9:07 am Moscow Time “Vostok 1” was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Once in Space, Gagarin completed one orbit around Earth, then the Vostok capsule reentered the atmosphere and Gagarin parachuted home to Russia.
While nearly everyone marvelled at these amazing accomplishments, a few of us were also curious about the rockets and the launching area that enabled the first Sputnik, the first Laika flight, and Yuri Gagarin’s orbit. What about this place, that is just as important now, as it was during the Cold War?
All of the Russian crewed Space missions, Lunar, Oceanic, geostationary, and planetary surveillance have been launched from Baikonur. Plus, all International Space Station flights that use Russian rocketry will continue to be launched from this place.
The historic Cosmodrome is situated in the Republic of Kazakhstan about 2,100 kilometres (1,300 miles) southeast of Moscow. The name “Baikonur” is a relic of Soviet Cold War secrecy. Officials chose the name of a small mining town. However, the actual Cosmodrome is some 322 kilometres (200 miles) southwest of that town. Soviet officials intentionally named it this way in order to conceal the actual location of the space complex and keep it secret.
Other considerations used in the locating of the Cosmodrome are that the area is in a semi-arid climate zone with plenty of clear-sky days. Also, Baikonur is far away from large population centers.
The world’s oldest and largest space complex has evolved over the past several decades. At the time of its initial construction, Kazakhstan was an integral part of the USSR. The Baikonur complex was planned and built in total secrecy at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. The Soviet Union was in competition with the United States to send the first human into orbit.
At it’s very beginning, Baikonur was not originally planned as a space exploration center. On February 12, 1955, The Kremlin issued a decreee to construct the secret scientific research test range, specifically a test sight for intercontinental ballistic missile research.
The Cosmodrome project was one of the most costly efforts made by the USSR. Massive funding was needed for just the basic infrastructure of hundreds of kilometres of railway and highway routes to the remote area. The development of the town, Leninsk, to station workers and scientists, had to be paid for.
The first construction was military housing that began on May 5, 1955. The next month, work started on the large main assembly building at “Site 2” and industrial development at “Site 9”. By summer, about 5,000 military engineers and construction workers were involved in a massive construction effort.
The Cosmodrome was divided into three main regions, right, central, and left. Each area was specialized for various needs of the Soviet Ministry of Defense and the Soviet Space Program. The areas were named after Soviet aerospace pioneers: Sergei Korolev, Mikhail Yangel, and Vladimir Chelomey. The central region or Korolev Area was the first to be constructed.
The Korolev Area is where the first operational ICBM was launched on May 7, 1957. (The flight was aborted in mid-flight due to problems with a fuel line.) It was on October 4th of the same year that Sputnik 1 was launched from the Korolev Area to become the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, the event that triggered the Sputnik Crisis in the US.
Currently, Baikonur Cosmodrome is no longer a secret. The spaceport is busy with launches of manned and unmanned rocket missions. Furthermore, the nearby town of Leninsk has been renamed “Baikonur”.
(Thanks to Роскосмос (Roscosmos) and NASA for some background information.)