It ain't pretty, but it sure does work.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 4 of 5)
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.