Trans Eurasia travel

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By Michael Steen

The first thing that strikes a visitor to the Baikonur Cosmodrome is just how remote it is. A final piece of Russia-controlled land lost in the vast Kazakh steppe-the Russian Federation pays Kazakhstan USS115 million a year in rent to maintain jurisdiction over the site-driving to the space rocket launch site involves hour after hour of bumping along a potholed Soviet-era road through vast expanses of flat and featureless landscape or, the quicker option, flying over it in a charter plane likely to originate in Moscow. There's a good reason for this isolation: during the 1950s, the Soviet planners who built Baikonur had not even started thinking about space. Rather, they were looking for a place to set up a secret military base that could construct, test and launch nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

That also explains why Baikonur Cosmodrome was for many years not actually marked on any maps as Baikonur. The missile range and later cosmodrome was built at a railway junction named Tyuratam alongside the Syr Darya River. But once the Space Race got under way, the Soviet press referred to the Soviet Union's launch site as "Baikonur", the name of a mining town a few hundred kilometres to the north. It is thought this was done in an attempt to confuse the United States as to the site's true location. The fake name stuck, and in the mid-1990s the town that serves the cosmodrome was renamed from Leninsk to Baikonur.

A whiff of Soviet-era secrecy still hangs over Baikonur today-and this, indeed, is part of its appeal to many would-be visitors. The last nuclear missiles were shipped away in 1983 and Baikonur is now gradually moving towards entirely civilian control. But uniformed officers are still everywhere and. together with the neat rows of old Soviet apartment blocks, many of them no longer inhabited, they lend the place the feel of a provincial garrison town. To keep out the curious and the unauthorised, military checkpoints guard the entrances to both town and the sprawling but high-security cosmodrome-a great expanse of steppe dotted with launch pads, giant rocket assembly halls, rocket fuel factories, radar arrays... the remains of decades of industry devoted to rocket science.

Small piles of rusting metal are scattered among the pale reddish mud and green scrubland of the cosmodrome. It's not that the Soviet space programme was particularly haphazard; it's just that there was no obvious need to keep the vast territory tidy. Baikonur has become increasingly profitable in recent times as a site for launching communications and other commercial satellites. Ironically, some of them are launched using "Dnepr" rockets, which are decommissioned nuclear missiles. Weapons that were once aimed at Western cities now put satellites in orbit to beam TV signals to those same cities. But there are also large swathes of the cosmodrome where time has stood still, leaving nothing but long-abandoned Soviet-era projects and empty missile silos.

One notable example is the decaying shell of a Soviet Energiya-Buran space shuttle-a craft very similar in appearance to its US counterpart, but one that only flew once in an unmanned test flight. The gantries of the enormous launch pad, built to accommodate the Buran, creak in the fierce wind. This is a harsh, semi-desert environment with freezing winters and sweltering summers, so even the enormous rocket assembly halls that are still 'n use have a battered appearance. To the casual eye, much of Baikonur looks derelict, as if the Space Age had come and gone.

But the casual onlooker would be mistaken. In order to get its cosmonauts into orbit, Russia still deploys Soyuz rockets, first used in 1966 and based on the design of the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. Russian space officials are proud of the heritage, simplicity and reliability of this technology, although they also like to point out that the craft has been updated continually (the Soyuz capsules that returned to Earth started to be kitted out with satellite telephones and GPS positioning devices after a capsule veered off course when landing in 2003. Once on the ground, the craft had not been able to radio mission control).

Yet for all its simplicity, Soyuz has surpassed the US Space Shuttle in safety and played a crucial role in keeping the International Space Station going. Following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, the only way for NASA astronauts to get to the space station for several years was by hitching a ride on Soyuz. These days NASA officials and former astronauts mingle with Russian space officials at Soyuz launches, often marvelling at just how- close they are allowed to get to the craft during the "rolling out", when a train slowly pulls Soyuz from its assembly hall to Launch Pad No. 2, also known as the Gagarin Start.

Baikonur's manned launches blast off from the same launch pad that sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit as the first man in space in 1961. Under the gantries that hold the rocket in place, a Soviet-era mural proclaims: "Here, by the genius of Soviet man, the audacious storm of the cosmos began in 1957." It is more than the usual empty rhetoric: Baikonur is the place from which the first Sputnik satellite was launched in 1957. Aside from Gagarin. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and Alexei Leonov, the first person to complete a spacewalk, both launched from Baikonur. And many years later, Baikonur would also be the site from which the first space tourists blasted off.

Today, Kazakhstan operates its own National Space Agency-called Kazkosmos-within Baikonur. In June 2006 it launched KazSat-1, its first communications satellite, designed to provide telcomm services for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and even part of Russia. Plans were put into place to follow KazSat-1 with KazSal-2 and KazSat-3- as well as a number of scientific satellites designed to predict earthquakes trials involved in realizing their dream of watching a launch at first hand, can make the whole experience even more satisfying.

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