Baikonur launch site turns 50
Five decades after Soviet engineers turned a wind-swept corner of the remote Central Asian steppes into a secret missile launch site, President Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, commemorated the anniversary of the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
At the ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary on 2 June 2005, Putin hailed the cosmodrome’s construction in the years after World War II as “a heroic feat ... of the people who had just gone through a devastating war”.
“Today, Baikonur is rightly considered the world’s leading cosmodrome, and it’s good that its unique potential is being actively engaged and is developing consistently,” Putin said. “It makes a key contribution to the international space station.”
Initially designed as a testing ground for a top-secret Soviet ballistic missile programme, Baikonur was a key site in Moscow’s space race with the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and saw many historic firsts in exploration.
Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth, blasted off from here in 1957, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was launched from Baikonur in 1961.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan inherited the cosmodrome and now leases it to Russia, which uses it as its sole launch site for human space missions.
In the past two years, Baikonur has been the only gateway to the international space station because the U.S. space shuttle fleet was grounded after Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
ESA,under a cooperation contract with the Federal Space Agency, uses Baikonur's facilities to launch its spacecraft. The latest ESA launch from Baikonur took place on 31 May 2005. The unmanned Foton-M was put into orbit by a Soyuz-U launcher. Baikonur cosmodrome is also used for human missions to the ISS, the most recent being the Eneide mission with ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, in April 2005.
Many other ESA missions have been launched from Baikonur including Cluster-2, Integral, Mars Express, Odissea, Delta and Cervantes. Many others are still to come: Venus Express and Galileo are planned to be launched at the end of this year from Baikonur.
The cosmodrome extends for 85 km from north to south, and for 125 km east to west. It has dozens of launch pads, five tracking-control centres, nine tracking stations and a 1500-km missile test range.
Shortly after their arrival on the afternoon of 2 June, Putin and Nazarbayev visited a facility where Proton rockets and satellites are assembled. Later they met with some of the veterans of space exploration.
Russia's President brought heartfelt congratulations to the space centre personnel and retired employees on its golden jubilee and decorated some with various orders and medals. Among those presented with a medal was Leonid Baranov, Commanding General of the Baikonur cosmodrome.
The two presidents also laid the foundation stone for a new joint Russian-Kazakh launch complex, Baiterek, for the more environmentally friendly Angara vehicle. The Angara will offer an alternative to the Russian boosters now in use.
Russia pays $115 million annually for the use of Baikonur under an agreement that will remain in effect until 2050.
Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev also stressed the importance of developing space tourism at Baikonur.
“A unique facility like the Baikonur spaceport has become a tourist attraction for many including international tourists. It is essential to ensure broader use of the cosmodrome’s potential to promote space activities and economic achievements of our countries,” the Russian and Kazakh presidents said in their joint statement.
The two heads of state also noted in the joint statement that a combined effort would be taken to further develop tourism at Baikonur.