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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Second Stage Ignites at Baikonur

On the barren, windswept Kazakh steppe, the very existence of an isolated cosmodrome and neighboring town was once in doubt. Now, as Nick Allen reports, both have discovered a new life.


No one steps out in the dusty road to halt the bus as it approaches the police traffic-control post. Driving past fangs of broken glass glinting from vacant windows, the vehicle groans onward through a seemingly endless landscape of crumbling blockhouses, rusting storage tanks and railway lines overgrown with sun-baked grass and scrub.


This is the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's largest rocket launching site occupying over 7,000 square kilometers of steppe in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. It is hard to believe that this ravaged, debris-littered panorama was once the focus of the Soviet quest to conquer space, the place where cosmonaut Yury Gagarin was launched 36 years ago on the first manned space flight.


Lines of boarded-up residential blocks once housing thousands of cosmodrome personnel flank the road. On the horizon the gantries for the huge 60-meter-high Energiya rocket stand idle after just three launches. With a payload of 100 tons, the monster rocket carried the Soviet space shuttle Buran into orbit on its one and only flight in 1988 before both projects were shelved.


Despite appearances, both the cosmodrome and the 50 kilometer-distant service town of Baikonur appear to be pulling out of a three-year nosedive of neglect caused by the collapse of the Russian space program and a long-running dispute over whether Russia or Kazakhstan calls the shots ... and pays the bills.


"1993 and 1994 was a very tough time -- sometimes there was no light and heat on the launch pads," said Major Igor Golosov, 34, who has worked on the base for 12 years and is now engaged in the "very ordinary work" of launching satellite-bearing Proton rockets.


In the past, the primary role of the cosmodrome was crystal clear: "Who comes to us bearing the sword shall die by the sword" reads a large inscription on a wall near the Soyuz rocket launch pad. A squad of sweating conscripts in fatigues and white vests from an engineer battalion jogs past another sign reminding "We serve Russia."


Now specialists like Golosov are spending less time on Russian space exploration and defense contracts. Instead they are helping the cosmodrome drum up funds by carrying out commercial satellite launches for foreign contractors, eager to use Baikonur's comparatively cheap and reliable facilities. Seven of the at least 12 Proton launches planned for this year are commercial and that number is expected to rise next year. Even the launches for the Mir space program are partly funded by NASA.


"We only ever launched our own stuff before. It's annoying -- our job is to defend the motherland, not to do business," said Golosov, his mirrored shades flashing from under his peaked cap as he stood beneath one of the huge gantries at the Proton launch site. "But I like my work. Those who don't like it here leave. No one keeps them here."


While the current number of Baikonur launches -- 10 to 15 per year -- is a fraction of the 40 to 50 annual launches in Soviet times, commercial demand for the cosmodrome is constant and shows no sign of flagging. This year alone, American space consultant and author James Oberg said $600 million in Western money makes up about half of the Russian Space Agency's budget. "Much of that is generated by launch contracts now underway at Baikonur," said Oberg.


Baikonur's workhorse is the reliable and efficient Proton rocket, which can hoist a payload of up to 22 tons and was originally designed as a military carrier. Each launch costs between $70 and $90 million but how much of that reaches the Baikonur operation is the military's very own commercial secret. However, a spokesman for Russia's Military Space Forces did say that in 1998 cosmodrome commercial revenues are expected to outstrip government subsidies.


International Launch Services, a joint venture between Russian state aerospace companies Energiya and Khrunichev and Lockheed-Martin, a U.S. company with a 51 percent stake, is the biggest private launcher at Baikonur. The firm has said the Proton order book is worth over $1 billion for 20 launches over the next five years.


"Their boosters are relatively cheap compared to French and U.S. boosters," said the Houston-based Oberg, referring to the world's leaders in commercial rocket launches. "Basically other commercial launchers are booked to capacity and so the Russians have an opportunity. The Chinese are trying to attract new customers but they have had some problems recently. They blew up a few. The Russians have not lost a commercial payload yet."


Town administrators are closely watching all this.


"The cosmos has gone over to commerce," says Gennady Dmitrienko, the thickset former army officer who was appointed head of the town administration in March 1995. "As Khrunichev, the maker of the Proton, gets customers, this will spill over into the town."


The relationship between town and base is simple: If there are space programs, there is a town. If the programs are cut back, the town chokes and withers. Nor are problems like energy shortages restricted to people's homes or street lighting -- power cuts on the rocket pads during launch sequences have been known.


At first glance Baikonur is just another Soviet-era town under an extra layer of dust. But look around a little, and you see there is barely a street in Baikonur without some kind of cosmic connection. Most are named after rocket scientists or cosmonauts, whose effigies stand in the town's main squares. Children climb up into little tin rockets before cavorting down playground slides and race their bicycles beneath a 43-meter Soyuz rocket mounted on a concrete plinth. Murals and inscriptions painted on the ends of housing blocks exhort residents to reach for the stars.


Only reluctantly do town officials talk of the extent of the deterioration which started in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A mass exodus of engineers and testers back to Russia ensued and the population fell to 50,000, half its peak level in the last decade of over 100,000. Under nominal Kazakh rule, the gates of this once high-security town were effectively thrown open, and empty houses were sacked and smashed up by anyone who fancied a piece of the action.


"Imagine a dark and dirty town, scoundrels wandering the streets, people afraid to go out because they will get their face bashed in," recalls Dmitrienko, who said he is determined to set Baikonur on its feet again now that the Kazakh government has leased the town and the cosmodrome to Russia until the year 2015.


"Now the population is 72,000," he said. "Many young lieutenants have arrived, there will be weddings, children will be born. We have a future."


This year the town's budget rose to 760 billion rubles ($131 million), over four times the amount in 1995, and according to Dmitrienko, specialists, too, have started to return.


Only through working out a series of intergovernmental contracts was it possible to arrest the decline. Now the provision of light, heating, communication, law and order and social welfare are the responsibility of the Russian government. Residents and town administrators say the town is now adequately provided for. Once again, access from the world outside is tightly controlled "to keep out criminals." Documents must be shown to enter the town, and foreign visitors are ushered around carefully by guides.


Meaning "red-brown earth" in Kazakh, the real Baikonur is in fact a Kazakh settlement located about 370 kilometers from the cosmodrome. It functioned as a Cold War decoy before the advent of high-power spy satellites revealed the rockets standing there to be dummies.


In its 40-year existence, the cosmodrome's town bore a series of names before it, too, became Baikonur in 1995: Zarya, or sunrise, Leninsk, Zvyozdograd, or startown, and again Leninsk. The town is clustered in the middle of a vast expanse of flat desert steppe, where temperatures range over the year from minus 35 to 40 degrees Celsius to plus 40 to 50 degrees. Skin-chafing sandstorms sweep the parched land in the summer, and in winter helicopters buzz around rescuing those caught in the open and on remote launchpads by snowstorms that, in a few ferocious minutes, can bury roads and stretches of the railway line connecting the town and the cosmodrome.


In a 1995 book "Legendary Baikonur," which included the literary efforts of many long-serving cosmodrome workers, rocket engineer Anatoly Koreshkov wrote:


Our town is not for the feeble,


Not for the timid,


Not for the petty bourgeois, spoiled by comforts,


It's not corks from champagne we launch here,


But rockets tearing off into an ocean of stars.


In the center of the town stands a twin monument over a mass grave to those who died at the cosmodrome, a poignant reminder that the Soviet Union's excellence in the field of rocket science did not come cheaply. While Cosmonauts' Day, April 12, is a big festival for Baikonur, October 24 is a time of mourning. Two rockets exploded on this fateful day, one in 1961, claiming more than 100 lives, and the second in 1963, killing seven. Valery Botnarenko, a native Moldovan posted to Baikonur 34 years ago, points to the smaller of the two monuments, a tapering metal column symbolizing an ascending rocket. The solemn faces of the seven men who died stare up from ceramic tiles set around the edges of a bare flower bed.


"Those are my friends lying there, I served with them in one team," says Botnarenko, 59, who took part in most of the major rocket programs during his career and now works as a guide at the town museum. "The only reason I wasn't killed is because my vehicle broke down on the way to the launch pad and I was an hour late."


Botnarenko seems almost incredulous as he recalls his early days in Baikonur. "I came here from Siberia as a pilot and they went and made a rocket man out of me. It took me four or five years to get used to the physical conditions here," he says. "I was immediately struck by the intensity of the heat. My hair started to fall out, I think because of a combination of this and the psychological effect of so much open space."


Today's young generation of inhabitants say the town provides for a reasonable existence, although they must forgo amenities like theaters, concert halls and anything more than basic shopping facilities.


"The harder the living conditions are, the closer people become," said Irina Sakharova, 29, from St. Petersburg, who came to Baikonur two years ago with her husband, a military aircraft engineer. Given free accommodation during his mandatory five year posting, the couple are saving most of his 1.5 million ruble monthly salary to buy an apartment in Russia when they return.


"This is better than being posted to Plesetsk or Svobodny," says Sakharova, referring to Russia's two other rocket launch sites, one in the Far North and the other in the Far East. "It's only three hours by plane to Moscow, and because my husband works at the airport here we get free flights on cargo flights."


Baikonur was once a little island of Soviet Russia in the steppe, but the recent outflow of many Russians and the arrival of many Kazakh refugees from the ecological disaster zone of the evaporating Aral Sea has drastically swung the demographic balance. The proportion of Russians to ethnic Kazakhs is now about 50-50.


The town authorities insist there is no ethnic tension and maintain that Baikonur is the only place in the former Soviet Union where the much vaunted Communist principal of "friendship of peoples" still exists.


"We don't care whether people are Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh or whatever -- each person who lives here is a Baikonurets," insists administration head Dmitrienko, who has worked at the cosmodrome and town for a total of 25 years.


"If anyone deliberately tries to stir up a problem, we'll soon put them in their place," he adds with a hint of warning. Dmitrienko flares with indignation at an excerpt from a Kazakh publication recently reprinted in the Russian-language newspaper "Karavan," which claims that the town authorities are preparing to drive out Kazakh refugees to free up space for incoming Russian staff.


Out on the streets the multicultural composition of the town does appear to work in practice, since everyone is dependent on each other. Coming from settlements all over the country, the ethnic Kazakhs in Baikonur are mostly employed in the service industries, supplying the cosmodrome personnel and their families with food and consumer goods.


"These launches are no longer interesting for us, but someone needs them," said Bulat Abdramanov, a 29-year-old Kazakh from the town of Kazalinsk, 100 kilometers away from Baikonur, as he sold stationery at Baikonur's busy town market.


"They write in the papers that the cosmodrome is ruining the ecology. It's bad for our health, but good for our business. I don't care who leases the town, Russians, Americans, Japanese, as long as they invest money here."


Had the town been let to rot away through lack of funding the cosmodrome would certainly have gone the same way. But while funds injected from the Russian budget into the town were needed to stem three years of decay, the long term survival of both entities can only be ensured through a major regearing of the cosmodrome's work.


While not exactly a case of swords to ploughshares, large-scale demilitarization is planned. "We envisage that the cosmodrome will gradually become more civilian, a federal cosmodrome, not a military one," said cosmodrome commander Lieutenant-General Alexei Shumilin, who is soon to retire after 38 years of service at Baikonur. Shumilin says the 15,000 military employees at the cosmodrome will be reduced by up to one half, and the cosmodrome's military and civil finances will probably be unified.


Running an operation on this scale is a huge and expensive task. Each year a minimum of 500 billion rubles must be put into maintaining the cosmodrome's infrastructure: electric energy supply, railway transport, communications and domestic services for the thousands who live on the cosmodrome itself.


"It's hard to find this sort of money, so some elements of the base are losing their technical properties and now have to be renewed," said Shumilin, who predicts that the likely course of such renewal is the attraction of private investors, both Russian and foreign, to Baikonur's commercial potential.


"The investors won't regret it. ... A lot of firms want to launch satellites here for various purposes. Our launches are cheaper than at other cosmodromes, our rockets are reliable," he told German television before the recent launch of a Soyuz rocket carrying Russian cosmonauts to the space station Mir. "From this base it's possible to resolve many questions very economically with a pay-off for both parties."


The opening of commercial avenues is now breathing new life into decaying enterprises on the cosmodrome. A 10-minute walk around parts of the 50,000-square-meter Progress assembly and testing plant reveals the highs and lows of the rocket business.


In its hey day, a decade ago, the plant employed 2,000 personnel. Now 750 remain. "Where are the rest?" asks a foreign journalist during a tour through the plant's vast, empty hangars.


General manager Grigory Sonis answers, "Some are guarding car parks, some are vending from stalls in the street." Proceeding past huge cradles holding the 460-ton Energiya rockets which will never fly and are now covered in bat droppings and dust, Sonis laments, "The rocket was very successful, the launches were very successful. It's a loss to humanity that they just lay here."


Moving on into another section of the complex, he turns round to face the group. "All of that behind you is yesterday -- this is tomorrow," he says grandly, beckoning to a series of large holes dug through the concrete floor into the clay beneath. "Come back in a year's time and you'll really see something."


With a construction grant of 39 billion rubles from a joint French-Russian commercial satellite launching partnership, Progress is now building an assembly line for Soyuz rockets with a 7-ton payload. The project already has 13 launches on its books.


Leaving the Progress plant, more examples of the old and new are housed in the adjacent hangar complex, once home to the Buran project.


The Buran that flew those historic few hours around the earth nine years ago sits in the center of the enormous building, entertaining visitors' cameras. Just a few feet away another wing of the hangar gleams in dazzling white modernity. Within, a team of Americans prepare a group of seven Iridium communications satellites, which will be hoisted on one Proton rocket in September.


Hangar chief Igor Lobov strides off to the other end of the complex and gestures to a large space being cleared for the modules for the International Space Station, a 14-nation project that includes the United States and Russia. Lobov's team will install most of the delicate components of the Russian-made modules before the construction launches of the station start from Baikonur next year.


Although there was a slump in activity in the hangar two years ago, Lobov says it's all hands on deck now. Friction between NASA and the Russian Space Agency over Russia's failure to meet its construction deadline and resultant threats to freeze Russia out of the project do not seem to concern the technicianunduly: "We've got plenty of work to keep us going," he says with a toothy grin.


Today it looks like Baikonur is making way for the next generation of rocket men. Shumilin's successor, Major General Leonid Baranov, is described by colleagues as a "wilful" 48-year-old who has visited U.S. launching operations and accepts the need for commercial activity. For his part, Shumilin is off to work on a bold international venture to launch rockets from a floating platform near the equator.


Other old-timers like Botnarenko also feel it's time to move on, even though they face an uncertain future elsewhere.


Botnarenko plans to leave Baikonur for good in September, and drive his Lada nearly 3,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine back to Moldova.


"I'm so used to all this. I love technology, and I know I'll never find work like this again," he murmurs as he sits in the museum playing video footage of some of history's most spectacular launches. "But I'm tired now, there's nothing new for me here any more."