It ain't pretty, but it sure does work.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 2 of 5)
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.