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Exploring Baikonur

The ghosts of the Soviet Union suffuse the streets of Baikonur. Every square and major road junction seems to be marked by the statue of one of the heroes of the Soviet space programme or by a cosmic or military vehicle mounted on a plinth. The town is located to the south of the main road between Kyzylorda and Aralsk, just beyond the Kazakh village of Tyuratam.

Along Korolev Avenue - The broad Korolev Avenue takes you into town from the checkpoint at its northern end. On the right side of the road, just beyond the offices housing the local administration, the rather scruffy Mir Park runs westwards. There is a statue here of a jubilant Gagarin, holding both arms aloft in triumph. At the western end of 'Peace Park' stands a weapon of war, an SS-17 ICBM, in front of which stands a bust of rocket designer Mikhail Yangel. The monument was installed here to commemorate the 90th anniversary of his birthday.

Back on Korolev Avenue, to the south of Mir Park, close to the side of the road, stands a monument consisting of a Soyuz rocket. Further south is the pleasant bench-lined Korolev Square, centred on a statue of designer Sergei Korolev, large of head and small of neck, gazing pensively across the town established to test his rockets. The stretch of Korolev Avenue south of here has been pedestrianised, and is known locally as 'Arbat', aping Moscow's famous pedestrian street. This is the favoured place for Baikonur's locals to stroll on warm summer evenings. At the southern end of 'Arbat' is the town's main square, still called Lenin Square and centred on a large statue of Lenin, pointing towards the Tsentralnaya Hotel as if proffering directions to a group of lost tourists. This large open square was once the venue for military parades. The green-walled neo-classical building opposite the Tsentralnaya Hotel accommodates the administration of the cosmodrome.

Around Gagarin Avenue - Abai Avenue, two lanes separated by a strip of green, heads westwards from Korolev Square. There is a bust of Abai, in front of a wall decorated with a frieze depicting Kazakh traditions. A mosaic on the back of the wall is centred on the figure of the Kazakh poet. The monument serves as a reminder in a town full of those to the Soviet space programme of Baikonur's location in Kazakhstan. Further to the west along Abai Avenue, on the right-hand side of the road, stands an old railway engine labelled 'Kosmotrans'. This stands in front of Baikonur's railway station, where commuter trains link the town with the cosmodrome to the north.
From Abai Avenue, take the next turning to the left and follow Pionerskaya Street until it intersects with Gagarin Avenue after around 600m. The four-storey concrete building at the intersection is the Baikonur branch of the Moscow Aviation Institute. Across from this, in the park, lie monuments to two tragedies to hit the launch programme at Baikonur.

A tall obelisk, behind which lies a rectangle of ground, a common grave delimited by tablets inscribed with 54 names, commemorates those who died in the accident of 24 October 1960 which has become known as the Nedelin Catastrophe. A prototype of the R-16 ICBM was being prepared for a test flight when it exploded on the launch pad. Up to 120 people are believed to have been killed, among them Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, the commander of the R-16 development programme. The R- 16's designer, Mikhail Yangel, survived the disaster, having left the immediate area to have a quick smoke. One of those rare occasions in history when cigarettes proved good for the health. The Soviet authorities, anxious to hush up the disaster, announced that Nedelin had died in a plane crash. The next tragedy to hit Baikonur took place with grim coincidence on exactly the same day, 24 October, three years later. Another monument, depicting a rocket heading off heavenwards, lists the names of the eight people killed in a fire at Site 70 of the cosmodrome. Thereafter, no work has been done at Baikonur on 24 October: the day is instead reserved as one of commemoration for those killed during military service.

Continuing westwards along Gagarin Avenue you reach a monument still bearing the former name of the town, 'Leninsk'. Turn left at this along Barmin Street, to reach a large An-12 transport aircraft, with its four propellers, mounted on a concrete stand. It stands in front of a group of apartment blocks constructed in the 1980s for those working on the Buran programme, which is one of the youngest parts of town.

From the memorials to the victims of the accidents of 1960 and 1963, continue south along Pionerskaya Street. This brings you to the Town Palace of Culture on your right; there is a mosaic frieze in the foyer celebrating the work of the builders of the cosmodrome. A stone just outside the Palace of Culture marks the place on which on 5 May 1955 the first building of the new town was constructed. Nearby stands a bust of Georgy Shubnikov, who was in charge of the work. On the top floor of the Palace of Culture is housed the Museum of the History of Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Baikonur Cosmodrome - The cosmodrome is located north of Baikonur town, on the other side of the Orenburg-Tashkent railway line and the main east-west road. The checkpoint marking the entrance into the cosmodrome is about 8km north of the town. The facilities are widely scattered across the open steppe; your guided tour will include only a few of the more historically interesting sites. The overall distribution of facilities across the territory of the cosmodrome tended to reflect the work of the competing design bureaux involved in moving the Soviet missile and space programmes forward. The central area of the cosmodrome was based around the processing and launch facilities of the designer Sergei Korolev. The western side, or left flank, served the ballistic missiles and space launchers developed by the design bureau of Vladimir Chelomei, including the facilities for the Proton rocket. The eastern side, or right flank, was devoted to facilities supporting Mikhail Yangel's bureau.

The 'Gagarin Pad' - All the facilities on the cosmodrome are allocated a number, and a logical enough place to start a visit is the launch pad bearing the title of Site No 1. This place provided the purpose of the original facility: it was the launch pad for the R-7 ICBM, first launched from here in 1957. This was also the pad used for the Vostok rockets, and Site No 1 is now informally known as the 'Gagarin Pad', because it was from here in 1961 that Yuri Gagarin was launched into space and into history. It is still in use today, as the launch pad for the manned Soyuz programme. It is located in the central area of the cosmodrome, some 25km from the checkpoint, just beyond the collection of buildings known as Site No 2. The latter were originally constructed as residential and assembly buildings for the R-7 programme. Expect to have your permit and documents checked at the entrance to this and other facilities within the cosmodrome, as well as at the main checkpoint itself.

A complex network of metal arms and latticework cradles the Soyuz rocket at the launch pad. The rocket arrives at the pad in a horizontal position, and is then lifted carefully into place. There are large floodlights at each corner of the launch pad, powerful enough to turn night into day. On the side of the structure are painted several hundred stars, each one signifying a launch. There is a clump of trees by the side of the launch pad. Descend a flight of steps to reach an obelisk topped with a model of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, launched from this pad in October 1957. An inscription records that the audacious assault on the cosmos was begun here by Soviet genius.

Site No 254 - Some 3km from the museum, Site No 254 at the cosmodrome is home to a huge, four-storey, blue and white-painted hangar, which from the outside looks like an ordinary office block when viewed from one angle, but displays its large hangar doors from another. The building is 312m x 254m in size, and was built for the Buran space shuttle programme. Since Buran's demise it now serves as the assembly and test block (known by its Russian acronym, MIK) for the Soyuz and Progress programmes. The clean and spacious hangar where the rockets are put together is an impressive sight. Cradles allow for vertical testing of individual parts of the assemblage, but the rocket leaves the hangar for the launch pad in a horizontal position, by rail. Messages are barked out in rapid-fire Russian from a tannoy. There is a large silhouette of Korolev on the wall of the hangar, accompanied by the slogan 'the road to the stars is open'.

Cosmonauts about to set off aboard Soyuz are brought to Site 254 some four hours before launch. Here they are given a final medical test, a meal, don their spacesuits and give a press conference. You can visit the room in which the press conferences take place. The cosmonauts are protected behind a glass screen from any germs which may be carried by the media. Site 254 has been used for manned space launches since 1988: there are photographs on the walls of the cosmonauts to have set off from here.

Proton rocket assembly and launch sites - The Proton rocket, a product of Vladimir Chelomeis design bureau, is a long-serving unmanned launch vehicle. First launched in 1965, the Proton remains in use, although it is slated for replacement by the Angara rocket, which can carry a heavier payload and uses a less toxic fuel mix. Baikonur is the only location used for the launch of Proton rockets, which are built at the Khrunichev plant in Moscow. Its name derives from the Proton scientific satellites which were among the rockets first payloads.

The Proton facilities are located on the western side of the cosmodrome. From Site No 254, head back southwards in the direction of Baikonur town. Turn right after 8km. Some 32km on, a signposted right turn brings you to Site No 200, one of two Proton launch complexes at Baikonur, consisting of two launch pads each. Launch Pad 39, which came into operation in 1980, is still in use. As with the Soyuz rockets, the Protons are brought to the launch pad by rail in a horizontal position, and then raised to the vertical, supported by a metal cradle. A reinforced concrete bunker houses the staff at the launch site. Launch Pad 40, opposite, is no longer in operation. This is the site which has been earmarked to house the joint Kazakh-Russian Baiterek complex, for launches of the Angara rocket. A plaque at the site commemorates the visit of presidents Putin and Nazarbaev on 2 June 2005 to inaugurate the complex, though at the time of research construction work had not yet begun.

A few kilometres away, at Site No 92A-50, the payloads for the Proton rockets are assembled. This assembly and test block (MIK) of the Khrunichev plant houses in its entrance a display of photographs from the joint visit to the site of presidents Putin and Nazarbaev on 2 June 2005, marking the 50th anniversary of the cosmodrome. Foreign companies whose satellites are being taken up into space by a Proton rocket carefully prepare their valuable property in a specially guarded area of the facility. A constant year-round temperature is maintained in the assembly halls, and their staff boast of standards of cleanliness as good as any hospital surgery.