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Baikonur

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

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.

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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