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

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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 retired 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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