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Baikonur

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

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?

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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