Rocket Readied Amid Rust and Stray Dogs

APA police officer guarding a Soyuz rocket as it is transported to a launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Sunday.
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- The rocket scheduled to carry the first Korean citizen into space rolled to the launch pad Sunday, hauled across the scrubland of the Central Asian steppes by a locomotive at dawn.

The rollout came under blue skies before Tuesday's launch, which should ferry two cosmonauts and a South Korean graduate student to the international space station.

On Saturday, engineers bolted together the different stages of the rocket, including the manned Soyuz vehicle, in a huge assembly building not far from the launch site.

At dawn Sunday a train engine pulled the rocket to its pad, where a hydraulic arm pushed it upright and towering gantries closed around it.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome, built from 1955 to test nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, is littered with satellite dishes and antennas, rusting steel scrap and a number of abandoned structures. Stray dogs roam near the assembly building. The equipment used to handle and transport rockets appears to be 1960s-era technology.

But experts say beneath the flaking paint, the space program is remarkably healthy.

Jo Yong-hak / Reuters
A man walking by a model of the Soyuz in front of Seoul's City Hall on Friday.
Phil Cleary, NASA's director of Human Space Flight Programs in Moscow who flew in for the launch, said, "They produce world-class hardware, highly reliable spacecraft."

Preparing the U.S. space shuttle for launch requires several days and hundreds of workers, Cleary said. On Soyuz flights, these tasks are done by a few dozen Russian workers, mostly on one morning.

Christian Feichtinger, head of the European Space Agency's Moscow office, had a similar assessment. The Russian approach to space travel, he said, "is very straightforward. It's very robust, down to earth and pragmatic."

Tuesday's Soyuz flight is being partly financed by the South Korean government, and its three-member crew includes Yi So-yeon, a South Korean bioengineering student. The Korean and Russian flags are painted on the side of the Soyuz.

Yi was one of 36,000 applicants to become the first Korean citizen in space and became a finalist in 2006.

Yi said at a recent news conference in Moscow that she planned to sing for the crew of the space station and to cook a traditional Korean meal. She signed a photograph of a rocket at the museum here with a smiley face drawn inside a sketch of a flower.

The Soyuz crew includes Sergei Volkov, 34, whose father is Alexander Volkov, 59, a veteran cosmonaut who logged 391 days in space on three separate space missions in the 1980s and early 1990s. The elder Volkov was at the launch pad Sunday, watching the crew erect the rocket that his son will pilot. If the mission is successful, Sergei Volkov will become the first second-generation cosmonaut or astronaut to fly into space.

Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko is the third member of the Soyuz crew.