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Baikonur

It ain't pretty, but it sure does work.

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A lonely, weathered marker standing next to Site 1 at Baikonur Cosmodrome informs visitors that this is where it all began. The marker, a simple concrete obelisk topped with a small metal sphere, commemorates the launch of Sputnik from this site almost 50 years and hundreds   of launches ago. As you climb the steps from the Sputnik monument and stroll the short walkway to the launchpad, the concrete—worn away to expose rusted reinforcing bars beneath—crackles underfoot like a broken windshield. Paint ripples off the nearby blockhouses. Yuri Gagarin, the first space explorer, also launched from this pad.

And yet, among the ample reminders of the past, the future is very much alive at Baikonur. I was there as part of a press tour for Western and Asian journalists to cover the October 31 launch of U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd and two cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, aboard a Soyuz TM-31 bound for the International Space Station. Their mission, as the first permanent crew of the outpost, would lift off from Site 1, adding yet another first to the lore of this place.

Baikonur lies 200 miles east of the Aral Sea, at about the same latitude as Seattle, and covers more than 4,500 square miles of Kazakhstan’s immense desert steppes. For those of us covering the launch of Shepherd, Krikalev, and Gidzenko—dubbed the Expedition One crew—getting there meant a three and a half-hour ride from Moscow on a Yak-42 chartered by Energia, a company descended from Russian rocket patriarch Sergei Korolev’s design bureau. Today, Energia, which is partnered with Western aerospace companies, manufactures Soyuz rockets both for manned missions and commercial launch. We were bused from central Moscow to Vnukovo-3 airport, which, like the city’s three other major airports, is crowded with mothballed Soviet and Russian airliners, some still displaying the hammer and sickle. The Yak tri-jet, which looks like a Boeing 727’s little brother, still sported Aeroflot Soviet Airlines emergency cards in its seatbacks and was a pleasant ride, complete with flight attendants who plied the aisle with a cart clinking with open bottles of vodka, wine, and whiskey.

As the Yak descended toward the endless tan expanse of Kazakhstan, the view began to resemble a NASA animation of a Mars landing. We touched down on the same runway used by the Soviets to recover the Buran space shuttle and rolled to a small customs building. A dog wandered the taxiway aimlessly.     

After a seemingly endless bus ride, we dined at Energia’s processing facility. Then we were off to the Sputnik Hotel, built last year by the French company Starsem, which launches communications satellites aboard commercialized Soyuz rockets. The hotel was modern and comfortable, in contrast to the accommodations some of my fellow travelers had endured in Baikonur for Norman Thagard’s launch five years ago. They told of water unsafe even to shower in.

Very early the next day we were hustled aboard buses to the rollout of Expedition One’s Soyuz. Along the way was Baikonur’s small museum, tucked behind two small cottages, once residences of Korolev and his favorite cosmonaut, Gagarin.

When I later took time to visit the museum, I met in its small office Valentina Bulgakova, a slight, poised woman who pads around the museum’s creaky floors like a Bolshoi dancer. No multimedia presentations here—just amazing artifacts in plain view and touchable. Bulgakova explained the significance of each item, her soft voice followed by an interpreter’s less melodious translation.

As we walked through the museum’s rooms, images of Korolev, the bellicose and brilliant force behind the creation of the Soviet space program, appeared often in paintings, photographs, and heroic Soviet monuments. Workers began arriving at Baikonur in 1955 to build Site 1 for testing his R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. As the workmen poured the concrete launch pad, laid track to tie into railroad lines, and raised facilities for construction of the R-7 itself, Korolev and other Soviet designers were already considering the booster—part of a cold war buildup as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev aggressively developed nuclear-tipped ICBMs—for space exploration. Just two years after construction at Baikonur began, Sputnik was launched atop an R-7.

Today in the Baikonur museum is the portable phonograph that Korolev played to bring a little reminder of home to the workers toiling in a barren and forbidding landscape. Like Baikonur, the old record player remains stubbornly workable. Bulgakova lifted the player’s arm and carefully placed it on the turntable’s spinning disk, and the voices of Russian folk singers echoed in the room.

Even as that music was first heard on the plains at the cosmodrome, Korolev and his engineers envisioned sending a man into space, a dream that would be fulfilled atop a Vostok booster only four years after the launch of Sputnik. That first space traveler—Yuri Gagarin—remains the single most deified figure in Russian space history, and his likeness is inescapable at Baikonur. The Expedition One crew, like the crews of every Russian mission since Gagarin’s death in 1968, brought flowers to his grave in Red Square before launching on their space missions.

Baikonur’s museum holds many objects related to Gagarin, including the ground control panel from his flight, his uniforms, and even soil from his landing site, preserved in a silver container. The objects, lovingly displayed, reminded me of Christian relics displayed in the cathedrals behind the Kremlin wall, including a nail purported to be from the cross.  

But there was much space history made at Baikonur after Gagarin, and one item in particular provided a strong symbol of how firm a foundation Korolev built for his country’s space program. A small room held a complete Soyuz capsule, its orange and white parachute bundled on the floor. It sat as a museum piece, a spacecraft developed in the mid-1960s as Korolev’s last and most enduring design. The Expedition One crew rode an updated version of the same capsule to the space station.

Past and present meld at Baikonur. On our way to the Expedition One Soyuz rollout, along the cosmodrome’s potholed roads, the tour buses rounded a corner near a nondescript cluster of curious, white half-moon shaped structures. I later learned they were sections of the Soviet N-1 rocket, developed in the mid-1960s as a challenge to the U.S. Saturn V. The massive N-1 first launched in February 1969, but never flew successfully—all four of its launches resulted in catastrophic explosions or inflight breakups as the Soviets desperately tried to beat, or at least keep pace with, U.S. moon missions. In the United States, a Saturn V has had a museum built around it at Kennedy Space Center. But at Baikonur, pieces of N-1 rockets—priceless artifacts of the space race—sit torched in half and used as storage sheds or even gazebos.

Farther down the same road a Buran, a Soviet shuttle that was tested and orbited on a single unmanned spaceflight sits abandoned to the elements. Harsh treatment perhaps, but this one, which was used for aerodynamic testing, is arguably better off than a sister ship converted into a tourist attraction in Moscow’s Gorky Park.

We finally reached the Soyuz processing facility, a reminder that Baikonur remains a working spaceport. Russian technicians, who had spent months attaching the capsule to the booster and testing its systems, emerged from the building. Moments later, the Soyuz, cradled on a railroad car and shrouded in early-morning fog, rolled nozzles-first out of the processing building. The glossy dark green rocket sparkled in flashbulb fireworks. Russian soldiers and workers pointed, smiled, and photographed each other as it rolled slowly past in the background.

And then the Soyuz vanished into the morning mist. Our Energia tour guides yelled for us to scramble onto the buses, and the crowd of onlookers left in a dusty cloud as their cars bolted away. Why the hurry? It was baffling to anyone familiar with the Space Shuttle’s agonizingly slow crawl to Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center. In moments the press buses were speeding along the broken pavement leading to the launch pad about three miles away. As we wheeled to a stop, there it was: The Soyuz had beaten everyone to the site, and was already backed up to the launch pad. As we got off the buses, our handlers admonished “no smoking” as we filed past railroad cars full of kerosene fuel for the Soyuz.

Lieutenant General Valeri Grin stood before the rocket and answered questions through an interpreter. Grin plays  the role of both dove and hawk. He is the chairman of the intergovernmental commission that oversees launches in support of space operations, earlier aboard Mir and now aboard the International Space Station. He’s also deputy commander in chief of Russia’s strategic rocket forces. His world has changed much since he first came to Baikonur in 1970.

“The future of space is a global effort,” Grin said. “We have a very good relationship working with the Americans.” The International Space Station was topic A, but it was evident that Mir, which had been in space since 1986, commanded Grin’s loyalty and pride. When he was asked by a German Public Radio reporter how he would bid farewell to the now deserted station, he dropped his head and seemed, for the first time, to search for words. “You have done well,” he said finally. “You have served humanity. But now it is time for you to go.”

At the edge of the concrete pad, crowded with onlookers and soldiers watching the Soyuz being readied for launch, a woman stood alone, clad in jeans, sneakers, and a ski jacket. She gradually drew a small crowd of reporters and well-wishers. The booster, topped with the cramped capsule that would carry her husband, Bill Shepherd, into space rose until it was finally vertical. Beth Stringham-Shepherd certainly had a personal stake in the upcoming launch, but it was also her professional role as a lead NASA strength trainer and rehabilitation coach that had brought her to Baikonur.

This was no Kennedy Space Center—not a palm tree in sight, and only an unchanging landscape of desert scrub all the way to the horizon. “I’ve never been to White Sands [Missile Range], but I hear this place is like that,” Stringham-Shepherd said. “But I like the Russian traditions—taking flowers to [Yuri] Gagarin’s grave, the reception for the families of the crew—we don’t do any of that.” And would her husband follow one other tradition, stopping at a roadside spot to urinate where Gagarin had done the same thing on the way to the launch pad?

“I guess he’ll go with the flow,” Stringham-Shepherd said.

Launch day arrived in another foggy shroud. First we elbowed into the room where Shepherd, Krikalev, and Gidzenko were having their suits leak-tested behind a glass partition. Then it was time to jockey for a place outside, where we would all witness a tradition held over from the Soviet space program. For decades, cosmonauts had emerged from the building to prescribed marks on the asphalt, to stand at attention as the mission commander saluted smartly and reported to the senior general that the crew was ready for flight.

Only this time, an American stood on the commander’s spot. Shepherd saluted, and Lieutenant General Grin softened the hard-edged Russian convention by stepping forward to clasp each man’s hand and murmur final farewells.

The crew had been installed in the tiny Soyuz at least an hour before we arrived at the reviewing stands, which stood a half mile from Site 1. Concrete friezes of Gagarin, the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft, and other cosmonauts and missions, their colors weathered into powdery pastels, decorated the outside of the buildings. The heavy fog persisted, but at 10 minutes before launch, the pad finally appeared in the distance, with the Soyuz frosted white from the frigid liquid oxygen within.

The sound hit first. A deepening roar, a flash as the rocket rose and cleared the tower, and then, just as on rollout day, it disappeared into the fog, reappearing 30 seconds later as a bright, diamond-shaped light high above our heads.

NASA Administrator Dan Goldin stood nearby sipping celebratory whiskey. “The Russians trust us to launch cosmonauts on the shuttle, and we trust them to launch our astronauts on their rockets,” Goldin said. “When we went to the moon, we were really proud—we knew we were changing history. But the ISS is a more significant activity… instead of pointing missiles at each other, we learned from each other. It’s a wonderful day, not for America, not for Russia, but for the people who live on this planet.”

Beth Stringham-Shepherd and astronaut Julie Payette had stood huddled around a television monitor sitting on the reviewing stand that showed a sometimes fuzzy view of the astronauts inside the capsule as it rose. There were cheers and hugs as Russian ground controllers announced via loudspeaker that the capsule had achieved orbit at the prescribed nine-minute mark.

Stringham-Shepherd held a cigar and glass of whiskey. Her cheeks were wet with tears. “Shep was beaming from ear-to-ear,” she said. “It was great to see him so excited. I was kind of bummed I couldn’t see the launch [because of fog] but maybe I can get back here for the next one.”

The next Soyuz scheduled to fly to the ISS will deliver a docking compartment on a 2001 launch—five more space station launches are scheduled through 2006. But the cosmodrome’s future lies not with the ISS, but in the booming telecommunications industry and its insatiable appetite for new satellites. Inside Energia’s processing facility, where Soyuz capsules and unmanned Progress resupply ships are prepared for the orbiting space station, workers also prepare Proton upper stages for commercial launch.

“We completely redesigned this building,” said Mikhail Malugin, who oversees Energia’s Soyuz, Proton and Progess preparation in this building. “It was used for the Buran program, but now we process Proton DM upper stages to deliver commercial satellites, and we are doing the final testing of Progress vehicles, including electrical and hydraulic systems.”

Any talk of conducting commercial operations here would have been unthinkable when the complex was still a major center for military missile testing. In 1988 the Soviet government began removing from Baikonur ICBM launch testing facilities and their personnel. The process was made more urgent when Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, and the cosmodrome suddenly ended up in a foreign country. The military still operates Baikonur’s telemetry and tracking stations. Today, Russia relies mainly on Plesetsk—a military launch site in its own territory—for ballistic missile testing.

With the decision late last year to deorbit the Mir space station—the last Russian space program for the forseeable future—Baikonur suffered another loss. But starting in the mid-1990s, increased investment began to point the way to a new future. The French company Starsem and the U.S. firm International Launch Services staked their claim at Baikonur with the construction of clean rooms for payload processing in 1999. Today, ILS, which launches satellites aboard the Proton—Russia’s largest rocket—and Starsem, which offers an orbital boost aboard a commercialized Soyuz, are at the heart of a new era here.

In front of the cosmodrome’s museum, the cottages of Korolev and Gagarin sit dark and abandoned, amid acres of crumbling buildings and burst steampipes heading off at drunken angles like pick-up-sticks. But no matter—the rockets still burn bright at Baikonur.

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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