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Baikonur, the worlds largest and oldest space launch facility, is one of the most fascinating sights in Kazakhstan, the place in which many of the key achievements and dramas of the Soviet space programme unfolded. It is also one of the most difficult to visit.

The progress in the Soviet rocket programme, spearheaded by rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, required the establishment of a new test site, as the existing site at Kasputin Yar on the Volga was not suited to the large range of the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) being developed. The site eventually selected was near the village of Tyuratam, on the Orenburg-Tashkent railway. A team of engineers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Georgy Shubnikov arrived in 1955 to begin the construction of the complex, many coming here from work at the Semipaiatinsk Test Site. The launch pad they built saw the first test launch of an ICBM, the R-7 Semyorka, in 1957. But with its large payload and range, the R-7 had potential not just as a weapon of war, but also as a space launch vehicle. Sergei Korolev himself was gripped by the dream of using rockets to reach out into space, and managed to persuade the Soviet authorities to support a programme to put a satellite into space, prodded by reports that the US were planning something similar.

On 4 October 1957, the worlds first satellite, Sputnik 1, weighing only some 90kg, was successfully launched from Baikonur. Thereafter, the Soviet space programme developed with astonishing rapidity. Less than a month later, on 3 November, its timing dictated by Khrushchev's wish that it be part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, the much larger Sputnik 2 was launched, sending into space a dog named Laika. Poor Laika sadly died after a few hours in space, as there was not any provision to bring this canine cosmonaut back to earth.

Baikonur also provided the launch pad for the first manned spaceflight, that of Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961. The 5ft 2in-tall Gagarin (small stature was a great advantage given the cramped nature of the Vostok cockpit) was promoted to major during the flight itself, and emerged from it a major celebrity. He was killed in 1968 during an accident while retraining as a fighter pilot. Gagarin was chosen ahead of another promising young prospective cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, in part apparently because of Titov's colder personality. But Titov at least earnt the distinction later that year of being the first person to spend a full day in space, aboard Vostok 2.

On 16 June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, launched from Baikonur on Vostok 6, became the first woman in space.

Baikonur was also the launch site for the Voskhod programme, successor to Vostok, which notched up further 'firsts': Voskhod 1 in 1964 was the first space flight carrying more than one person aboard. Aleksey Leonov, aboard Voskhod 2, became in 1965 the first person to walk in space. But from the mid-1960s, while continuing to register further achievements, from the Salyut space station to the Mars 2 probe, the first to reach the surface of Mars, the Soviet space programme experienced a number of setbacks and disappointments.

Korolev died in 1966 following an operation. The N-1 heavy booster rocket project ended in failure, and with it Soviet hopes of beating the Americans to a moon landing. The Baikonur Cosmodrome geared up in the 1980s to a new and exciting programme: the Buran space shuttle and accompanying Energia launcher. It became operational, however, in 1988, a time of major changes in the USSR. The Buran project was deemed too expensive, and only flew on an unmanned test flight before the project was abandoned.

On the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited much of the Soviet space programme but the Baikonur launch facility lay in the territory of the newly independent state of Kazakhstan. The solution agreed in 1994 was that Russia would lease the entire Baikonur facility, including the town which supports the cosmodrome, from Kazakhstan. In 2005, Russia ratified the agreement extending the lease, for which it pays US$115 million annually, until 2050. The Russian influence in the town is very strong. Prices are denominated in roubles, and though it is permissable to pay in Kazakh tenge, expect to get change in the Russian currency. The Russian MTS mobile-phone network is dominant in the town, and cars bear Russian number plates. The town has largely become civilianised though, with the former military administration having handed over to the Russian space agency Roskosmos. But Kazakhstan has increasing aspirations of a space programme of its own and maintains its own presence in the town, including a representative of the Kazakhstan president as well as offices of the Kazakhstan National Space Agency.

The Baikonur complex covers an area of 6,717 km2, stretching roughly 90km in an east-west direction, 75km from north to south. There are some nine launch complexes, with a total of 15 launch pads, and two airfields. The town of Baikonur is home to 70,000 people. Its activity today includes the manned launches of the Soyuz programme, including the flights of 'space tourists', and the commercial launches of satellites using the Proton heavy booster rocket, which has been in operation since 1965.

One curiosity about the Baikonur complex is its name. Baikonur is actually a village located several hundred kilometres to the northeast of the site of the complex, in Karaganda Region. It appears to have acquired the name because the Soviet authorities, required to declare the launch site in order to register Gagarin's flight with the International Aviation Federation, had no intention of disclosing the location of the secret complex near Tyuratam. They accordingly gave its location as close to Baikonur. That name stuck and when, in 1995, the town supporting the cosmodrome, which had previously carried the name Leninsk, was formally renamed Baikonur, it actually became accurate. Strangely, in Tsarist Russia an artisan had been exiled to the village of Baikonur for seditious talk about flights to the moon.

GETTING THERE - A visit to Baikonur requires official permission from the relevant Russian authorities, which for the tourist visitor can only straightforwardly be obtained through one of the travel companies experienced in bringing people here. Two- and Three-night packages available which, while spending a fair amount of time in museums and among the monuments of Baikonur town, also get you to some of the most interesting places on the cosmodrome itself, typically including Proton and Soyuz launch pads and at least one of the rocket assembly blocks. 40 days notice is required to secure the required permission in respect of foreign citizens; 30 days for citizens of Russia and Kazakhstan. When you are in Baikonur you are required to stay with your tour guide at all times. This applies to Baikonur town as well as the cosmodrome: you may not even be allowed out of the grounds of your hotel to wander unaccompanied to the shops. Tour prices are pretty steep though: starting at around €800 per person for a two-night trip (based on a group of at least ten people, and including local travel, full board and all fees to visit the various sights). Tours can be timed along with the forward schedule of launches, but if you are aiming to visit to coincide with a launch, be aware that the latter are subject to postponements, for example for meteorological reasons.