Baikonur Cosmodrome – The Oldest Spaceport on Earth

12 March 2011

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft is raised into vertical position at the launch pad, Dec. 18, 2009.  Image Nasa HQ
There are, to be frank, not many spaceports on the planet as of 2011. Of the thirty or so only six of them have sent people in to space (more than 100km in altitude). Four of those are located in the US, another in China and the sixth and oldest is to be found in Kazakhstan. It is known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome and as well as being the oldest it is also the largest spaceport in the world. It has quite a remarkable history. Still in operation, it has seen huge political change in its time and is set to function as a space port until at least 2050.

The Soyuz TMA-16 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. Image Nasa HQ
Yet Kazakhstan is not usually the country that springs immediately to mind when it comes to the space faring nations. It is the largest landlocked country on the planet, as well as being the ninth largest country in the world; its territory exceeds that of Western Europe. So why is the cosmodrome there at all? Until 1991 it was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) a single party socialist state which covered most of the territory of the old Russian Empire.

Launch scaffolding is raised into place around the Soyuz rocket shortly after arrival to the launch pad Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 - Image NASA HQ
The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft is raised into vertical position at the launch pad - Oct. 5, 2010, Image NASA HQ
The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft is rolled out by train to the launch pad, Oct. 5, 2010 0 Image NASA HQ.
The USSR (or Soviet Union) was in direct competition with the USA for dominance in the new, final frontier, space from the 1950s onwards. Baikonur was chosen by the Soviets for reasons which will become apparent later. Yet in 1991 Kazakhstan gained its independence and the Russians found that their largest spaceport was now essentially in the hands of a foreign power. Currently the station is leased by the Russian Space Forces and the Russian Federal Space Agency, something about which the Russians are hardly ecstatic.

The Soyuz TMA-01M rocket launches Oct. 8, 2010 - Image NASA HQ
It was built in complete secrecy but today it receives visitors from all over the world. Baikonur Cosmodrome was built in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War by the USSR in complete secrecy. What was to become known as the Space Race was underway and the Soviets and Americans were in competition to see who could get the first man in to orbit. It took two years after its founding for the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane to discover its whereabouts. Its fame increased, however, on April 12, 1961 when it served as the launch pad for Yuri Gagarin to become the first man in space in Vostok 1.

The sun rises behind the Soyuz launch pad shortly before the Soyuz rocket is rolled out, Sept. 28, 2009 - Image Credut NASA HQ
The Soyuz rocket is seen shortly after arrival to the launch pad, June 13, 2010 - Image Credit NASA HQ
Proton LV Being Readied for Rollout, January 2005 - Image Credit Alexpgp
The station is located on the Kazakhstan Steppes, a desert, about 200km distance from the Aral Sea. Its dimensions are staggering: it forms an ellipse which is 85 km north to south and 90 east to west and the station is plum in the center. From here a number of scientific, military and commercial space flights are launched each year.

The Soyuz TMA-18 rocket launches on April 2, 2010 - Image NASA HQ
Yet at its inception in 1955 Baikonur was not a space port – it was a test site for a new and frightening class of weapon – the ICBM or intercontinental ballistic missile. However, Baikonur’s remit was soon expanded. NIIP-5 as it was also known was to have launch facilities for rockets which were to be launched, some of them manned, in to space.

A newly "rolled out" Proton-M, carrying the Inmarsat-4F3 spacecraft, is readied for "verticalization" at Pad 39, Aug 2008 - Image Alexpgp
The Soyuz rocket is erected into position at the launch pad, March 24, 2009 Image Credit NASA HQ
The desert of Kazakhstan was perfect at the time – the almost barren and enormous wilderness allowed radio signals to be transmitted from the ground station to rockets without any interference or interruption. Moreover the site was chosen for reasons of safety and secrecy. With new rocket technologies occasionally failing it was thought best to have the station well away from heavily populated areas.

Russian engineers prepare the Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft and boosters for mating March 23, 2009, Image Credit NASA HQ
The Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad, March 24, 2009 - Image Credit NASA HQ
The Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft is raised into position shortly after it was rolled out by train, March, 31, 2010. Image Credit NASA HQ
It was to be one of the most expensive projects that the Soviet Union undertook. The infrastructure alone was massively expensive – hundreds of kilometers of new roads and railway lines had to be created as well as a town to provide support infrastructure for the station and its workers. As was the case in soviet times the town was named after Lenin and was known as Leninsk until it was renamed Baikonur in 1995.

The Soyuz TMA-01M rocket launches Oct. 8, 2010, Image Credit NASA HQ
The place is steeped in history. As well as the first operational ICBM to be launched the port had perhaps its most remarkable day on October 4 1957. On that day Sputnik 1 was launched and became the first spacecraft to fly close to the moon. The first artificial satellite to orbit the planet, the craft precipitated the Sputnik Crisis in the USA which had thought itself the world leader in space exploration until that point.

The Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad Sept. 28, 2009, Image Credit NASA HQ
Photographers capture the Soyuz TMA-18 rocket as it launches, April 2, 2010, Image Credit NASA HQ
Verticalized Proton Launch Vehicle, August 2006 - Image Credit Alexpgp
Two years later on January 2 1959 Luna 1 travelled to within 6000 km of the moon and became the first heliocentric orbiting object made by man. With a craft orbiting the sun the authorities in the USSR were quick to dub Luna 1 a new planet. Renamed Mechta it still orbits the sun, somewhere between Earth and Mars.

Launch scaffolding is raised into place around the Soyuz rocket shortly after arrival to the launch pad, Oct. 5, 2010, Image Credit NASA HQ
April 12 1961 was another key date in the history of Baikonur. Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space when he was launched in to orbit aboard the Vostok 3KA-3. Although it is not the most famous line uttered by a space farer his words have a wonderful resonance to them: “The Earth is blue [...] How wonderful. It is amazing”. Baikonur would also launch the first woman in to space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963.

A Russian security officer stands guard as the Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft is rolled out. March, 31, 2010. Image Credit NASA HQ
The Soyuz rocket is erected into position at the launch pad, March 24, 2009, Image Credit NASA HQ
The Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft is seen at sunrise prior to its launch at 10:04am, April 2, 2010. Image Credit NASA HQ
As well as triumphs, Baikonur has also had its tragedies. In 1960 an ICBM that was due to be tested exploded before its launch. The explosion killed over one hundred people. Yet it has also helped others in their hour of tragic need. After the Columbia Disaster in 2003 it helped to operate and resupply the International Space Station while the Space Shuttle program was in hiatus.

The Soyuz TMA-16 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Sept. 30, 2009 . Image Credit NASA HQ


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