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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wasteland Surrounds Cosmodrome

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BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — The helicopter swooped down on a pickup truck racing across the parched steppes, the aircraft banking so sharply its blades nearly grazed the half-dozen men crouched among dusty sacks in the open truck bed.

The pilot was patrolling the territory surrounding the Baikonur Cosmodrome to warn nomads and camel herders to stay out of the area during an upcoming launch. As often happens on such flights, he also came upon thieves trying to rip out copper cables to sell for scrap.

The helicopter chased the truck for a few kilometers, giving the ragged passengers an uncomfortable few minutes, before soaring into the blue sky. "People around here are very poor and everybody lives off the cosmodrome, some selling meat, others hunting for cable," said Viktor Borunov, a Russian aviation commander at Baikonur.

Kazakhstan inherited the cosmodrome after the 1991 Soviet collapse, and Russia leases it for $120 million a year. The lonely outpost in southern Kazakhstan is in one of the bleakest regions in the republic, where nothing grows along the banks of the muddy, meandering Syr-Darya River except tufts of dry grass and an occasional shrub.

The desert cosmodrome was long a proud symbol of Soviet domination in the space race. The first man in space, Yury Gagarin, flew into orbit from Baikonur 40 years ago. On April 28, American space tourist Dennis Tito blasted off from here.

But Tito’s reported payment of $20 million for the ride served as a reminder of the funding problems of Russia’s space program, which has been drained by post-Soviet economic troubles. Baikonur, a town built for space industry workers in one of the most desolate places on earth, has suffered, too.

Camels graze around the cosmonaut mosaic that marks the entrance to the town. The road from a Russian military-run airfield to the launch pad is flanked by abandoned vegetable plots, parched by the desert sun.

After the Russian military cut its forces in the area following the Soviet collapse, some of the water pumps used to irrigate the land were taken away. Others have gone to rust.

Most of the windows in rows of identical, gray five-story houses are bricked up. Nomads moved in and tore down the doors and windows to burn the wooden frames for warmth one bitter winter when broke town officials couldn’t provide electricity or heating.

A couple of five-star hotels were built here when Western space officials began to visit for launches under joint programs. Those freshly painted facades look out over neatly trimmed, sprinkled lawns and lines of trees.

But across the road, Kazakh children play soccer in the sand among rundown buildings and a few broken-down cars. Old women sit on water pipes stretched across the yard, selling onions and fried sunflower seeds. Surviving first-story windows are covered with fragments of chain-link fences, to protect against burglars.

"This is the problem here: No jobs for the young," said 62-year-old Burzhan Urumbasarov. "It used to be that if you were a resident of the town, you could work at the cosmodrome. But now they won’t give you a job without Russian citizenship."

Under Baikonur’s security regulations, the main jobs open to the Kazakhs who make up about half of Baikonur’s estimated 100,000 population are as janitors, plumbers or gardeners.

Authorities try to keep the lid on ethnic tension, and have reduced crime to occasional burglary or knife-fights — and the rampant scavenging. Baikonur also has two police forces — Russian and Kazakh — two courts and two prosecutors and a mayor appointed by both presidents.

A reminder of the abandoned moon program of the 1960s, silo tubes of the N-1 moon rocket are half-buried in the ground and serve as car garages.

In a hangar storing the Buran space ship — the Soviets’ long-abandoned version of the space shuttle — water drips from the roof 60 meters above.

"It rained, and the roof started to leak," said Yevgeny Martyshov, deputy chief of security at the Buran project. "And you can imagine what a job it would be to repair this roof."

A newer building, where a Russian segment of the international space station was assembled, gleams with fresh paint and paneling. But in a sign of the Russian space industry’s decline, rows of assembly scaffolding fill the building like skeletons, with no space craft under construction.

"Once, we would have five ships here at a time," said Russian Aviation and Space Agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov. "But then we would also have 100 launches a year, five times more than now."