About 1,300 miles (2,100 km) southeast of Moscow in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan, the world’s oldest and largest operational space launch facility is still conducting launches. The Baikonur Cosmodrome was originally constructed by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s as the base of operations for its space program.
The Cosmodrome has been an important part of space exploration history, having been the launching site of earth’s first satellite and first man in space. Today operations have been scaled down, but it remains one of only a handful of active space launching facilities in the world.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome (космодром Байконур) is located in the desert about 124 miles (200 km) east of the Aral Sea. The complex is just north of the Syr Darya River and measures 53 miles (85 km) from north to south and 56 miles (90 km) from east to west.
In total, the Cosmodrome covers 3,000 square miles (7,650 km2).
[ Other places 3,000 square miles in size: The Canary Islands, Death Valley, the city of Juneau Alaska, and the states of Delaware & Rhode Island, put together ]
Today the land is on Kazakh soil, leased to Russia until 2050 – but it was part of the Soviet Union when the Cosmodrome was built in the 1950s as a base of operations for the Soviet space program.
Scientific Test Range Number 5
It was called Scientific Test-Range number 5 (NIIP-5) when it was approved by the Ministry of Defense’s Chief of Staff on June 2nd, 1955.
Decree #292-181 “On the New Test Site of the Ministry of Defense U.S.S.R.” stated:
1. To accept proposals by comrades Malyshev, Zhukov, Vasilevskiy, Dementiev, Domrachev and Kalmykov:
a) On creation in 1955-1958 scientific-research and test range of Ministry of Defense USSR for flight testing articles R-7, Burya, and Buran with establishing:
- The heading part of the range in Kzyl Orda and Karaganda Regions of Kazakh SSR in the area between Novo-Kazalinsk and Dzhusaly.
- The area of warhead impact in Kamchatka Region of Russian Federation at Cape Ozerniy.
- The area of first stage impact of R-7 article on the territory of Akmolinsk Region in Kazakh SSR near Tengiz Lake.
b) On conducting the first phase of testing Burya and Buran vehicles at reduced range from the territory of scientific-test range #4 of the Ministry of Defense USSR from the region Vladimirovka of Astrakhan Region in the direction of Balkhash Lake.
2. To assign comrades Malyshev, Saburov and Zhukov in three weeks present in the Soviet of Ministers list of activities for organization and construction above-mentioned test range.
– The Chairman of the Soviet of Ministers USSR N. Bulganin & the Operational Director of the Soviet of Ministers USSR A. Korobov.
The site was officially named Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 (NIIP-5). Its geographic location was strategically chosen by a commission heavily influenced by military leaders, weapons designers, and rocket engineers.
So why the desert in Kazakhstan?
It is advantageous to launch where the earth’s rotational speed is greatest; on earth this is at the equator. The flat plains of the land near the Kazakh village of Tyuratam suited Soviet radio communication systems, which at the time required sending uninterrupted signals across ground stations hundreds of kilometers away.
(The R-7 Semyorka ICBM required 3 stations, two of which were 100 miles apart while the third was 180 miles behind the launch site)
Of course it also doesn’t hurt to build secret weapon launch facilities away from populated areas.
Baikonur Cosmodrome Construction
Crews of builders started arriving in Tyuratam at the end of March in 1955. The village’s tiny rail station was overwhelmed with hundreds of workers and tons of construction materials delivered by trains continuously months.
At the time there was very little infrastructure, services, or warehouses. The unloaded train cargo was formed into walls to create private storage areas until the concrete-producing facility was erected shortly thereafter.
The first construction was military housing, began on May 5th at Site 10 (today Baikonur, but known as Leninsk from 1958 until 1995). In the early years engineers and military units lived in “dugout towns” near the Tyuratam station; permanent housing for range personnel began in 1956.
Site 10 was located on the Syr Darya River and ran along the main train line. The town’s population reached 150,000 during the peak operational years of the Cosmodrome.
In June of 1955 work began on the large assembly building in what would be Site 2. By the end of the month the industrial zone at Site 9 was under development as well. By the end of the summer nearly 5,000 military construction workers were busy erecting structures all around the complex.
NIIP-5 is divided into three regions: Central, right, and left. Each served different functions within the Soviet Ministry of Defense and Space Program.
The three zones were named for pioneers in early Soviet aerospace:
- Sergei Korolev: First Soviet Space Program Lead Engineer; personally managed assembly of Sputnik.
- Mikhail Yangel: Premier Soviet Missile Designer and pioneer of storeable hypergolic fuels; designed the R-12 ballistic missile, famous for its 1962 deployment in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Vladimir Chelomey: Mechanics scientist, aviation, & missile engineer. Specialist in two-stage liquid propellant ICBMs; father of the Soviet Pulse Jet engine and the world’s first anti-cruise missiles.
The principle mode of transportation at the Cosmodrome was the rail system. Rockets were transported from assembly to launch pads horizontally on rail cars known as Motovoz. (jump to section about legendary Russian diesel-powered locomotives)
Once the rail car arrived at the launch facility, the rocket was erected.
Central Region (Korolev Area)
The Korolev Area was the first of the three regions to see construction. When groundbreaking began in 1955, it was known internally as Site 1 and was originally a test launch site for the R-7 ICBM – developed at Korolev’s OKB-1 design bureau. Later additions included Area 110 and Area 250.
Site 1 played an important role in early Russian rocket and space development programs, its resume is a catalog of historic firsts: It launched the first R-7 ICBM on May 15th, 1957.
It was also the launch site of the first manned spacecraft on April 12th, 1961. The milestone was achieved by Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok-1; the launch site is nicknamed Gagarin’s Pad in his honor.
The Cosmodrome would later host Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space on board the Vostok-6 when it launched from Baikonur’s Site 1 on June 16th, 1963.
Perhaps the most well-known launch from Site 1 was that of the first artificial satellite in space, Sputnik 1, on October 4th, 1957.
Operations at Site 1 reached a zenith in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of the manned lunar and Energia-Buran programs. It has hosted over 450 launches since it was established, making it one of the highest volume launching facilities in history.
Right Flank (Yangel Area)
The Yangel Area emerged in the late 1950s and occupies the eastern flank of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is home to Areas 31, 41, 45, and 109. It is named for designer of the missiles and launchers tested at the site – including the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
However before the first successful launch of the R-16 (NATO: SS-7 Saddler) on February 2nd 1961, an explosion of a prototype in October of 1960 killed over 100 personnel. The Soviet cover up of the Nedelin Catastrophe lasted for decades before the Kremlin officially acknowledged the disaster in 1989.
The Yangel Area would successfully test several ballistic missiles, including:
- The R-36 (NATO: SS-9 Scarp). These ballistic missiles were flight tested between 1962 and 1966.
- The R-36M (NATO: SS-18 Satan) ballistic missile began testing in 1971, with later versions of the R-36M2 being tested as recently as 1989.
- The MR-UR-100 (NATO: SS-17 Spanker) ballistic missiles were tested between 1971 and 1974.
- The Zenit-2 was a replacement for the 1960s-era Soviet ICBMs. The rockets were designed in Ukraine but launched at Baikonur. Construction of the Zenit rocket complex at Baikonur began in 1978; the launch pads at Site 45 were operational by 1983. A second pad was constructed in 1990 but destroyed during a launch failure that year. The site launched 11 Zenit trial flights between 1985 and 1987.
Left Flank (Chelomei Area)
The western side of the Cosmodrome is named for the missile engineer who was responsible for the bulk of the ICBMs tested in its first years. The Chelomei Area is home to Areas 81, 90, 92, 95, and 200. It emerged in the 1960s as a test site for the creations of the OKB-52 design bureau.
Missiles and space launchers on the Chelomei Area’s resume include:
- The UR-100 ICBM (NATO: SS-11 Sego). The most common ICBM deployed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
- The UR-200 ICBM (NATO: SS-10 Scrag). Designed for the deployment of the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), a Khrushchev-sponsored weapon intended to place a nuclear warhead into low Earth orbit (cancelled in 1965).
- The UR-500 ICBM, better known as the Proton. It was first launched in 1965 and is still used in 2014, making it one of the longest-tenured launch systems.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome is a massive complex, spanning across 3,000 square miles (7,650 km2) and consuming 600 million kilowatt/hours annually. According to official data from the early 1990s, the Baikonur Cosmodrome had nine launch complexes with fifteen launch pads. It had eleven assembly buildings, a power station, 2 airports, and 225 miles (360 km) of pipelines.
It also had an oxygen and nitrogen plant, 3 fueling and neutralization facilities, and 292 miles (470 km) of railway lines. The Cosmodrome has over 795 miles (1,280 km) of roads and 92 communications sites.
NASA offers the following information and visual map of Baikonur:
Baikonur has two Proton launch complexes, one for international launches, and one for Russian military launches. Each launch complex consists of two launch pads.
Launch Complex 333, the left launch pad, was used for the Zarya launch. This launch pad, which is also referred to as “point 23,” was fully refurbished in 1989. Launch pad 333-R is currently undergoing refurbishment.
map courtesy NASA
By the 1960s the existence of Test Range Number 5 at Baikonur was not a secret to the world at large, but the Russians had done well to cover the Cosmodrome’s true mission of testing liquid-fueled ballistic missiles.
With the exception of a handful of intelligence agencies, Baikonur was known for decades worldwide as merely a launch site for Russia’s space program.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had known about the ICBM activities at Baikonur since at least August of 1957. That year, U-2 high-altitude spy planes captured images of the R-7 missile launch pad near Tyuratam (above), the site’s name as referenced by Soviet engineers and U.S. intelligence agencies.
In fact the Cosmodrome was behind one of the most embarrassing surveillance snafus in U.S. history: The May 1960 capture of U-2 pilot Gary Powers (at right), who was shot down while on a mission photographing the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and Chelyabinsk-40, among others.
The town supporting the staff of the Cosmodrome was granted city status in 1966, and given the name of Leninsk (later changed to Baikonur by Boris Yeltsin in 1995).
The competing design bureaus which operated in each of the different areas had done well to foster Russian advancement in missile and rocket engineering; between 1960 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baikonur Cosmodrome had successfully conducted thousands of launches.
Historic Baikonur photographs courtesy Buran-Energia.com
By the end of the decade private Russian space contractors had taken over operation of the facilities. During this transitional time the Dnepr Program was an occupant of the Cosmodrome (from 1992 to 2003), developing a commercial space launch system based on the SS-18 ICBM.
The Russia-Kazakhstan Baiterek Joint Venture was announced on December 22nd, 2004. The goal was the construction of a new Bayterek space launch complex for the freshly-developed Angara rocket launcher.
The Angara system increases rocket payload to 26 tons from the Baikonur’s Proton rocket 20 ton capacity. Ultimately it would not be a threat to Baikonur; funding issues stalled the program in 2010.
Baikonur Cosmodrome celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 2nd, 2005; six days later Russia and Kazakhstan ratified an agreement to extend Russia’s lease of Baikonur through 2050.
However the rent is steep at $115M U.S. dollars (€84M/£68M) per year, and is partially responsible for Russia’s desire for greater space independence and construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast.
The U.S. anticipated re-opening domestic launch operations in 2015, however in May of 2013 the United States extended its contract at Baikonur until mid-2017.
For years Baikonur was the only launch site supporting International Space Station missions.
The Baikonur Name
Ask three Russian engineers about the source of the Baikonur name and you might hear three answers; the mission and origins of the Soviet launch site were always cloaked in secrecy, which led to creative versions of events passed down through the years.
One belief is the name was deliberately chosen around 1961 to misdirect Cold War opponents toward a small mining town – named Baikonur – about 200 miles (320 km) away. The enemy would believe the similarly-named launch site was hundreds of miles from its true location.
Others believe the Baikonur name originated from the Tyuratam region and pre-dates the Cosmodrome facility, which later adopted the regional name (Baikonur is Kazakh for “wealthy brown”).
While there is debate about the name Baikonur, everyone understands Tyuratam.
Satellite images of Baikonur courtesy NASA
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
Baikonur Cosmodrome Today
With a 60-year resume of important space launches and world-firsts, one might expect to find Baikonur an advanced and bustling hub of scientific activity. Instead, vacant buildings which used to house 40 year-old specialty rocket programs now house nomadic herders.
Spent launch equipment is salvaged by the local population in the surrounding areas. (below)
Outdated equipment long past its service life sits abandoned in now-unused buildings. The unfriendly climate and remote location have largely protected the abandoned portions of the site from vandals.
Streets are mostly filled with herders and day laborers; only occasionally does one see an engineer or scientist.
Yet the town proudly embraces its history. Around every corner is a mosaic of a cosmonaut or whimsical rendering of planets and shuttles; water fountains boast rocket spouts.
Visitors to Baikonur are greeted by a monument known as “Rybak” (fisherman), which greets visitors with a brag describing the size of fish he caught in the nearby Syr Darya River (below).
Anna Khodakovskaya, editor of the local newspaper, ruminates on Tyuratam technology milestones.
She recalls the first cellphones appeared around 2004; the first MRI in 2011. Cynically cognizant of Baikonur’s limited offerings, Khodakovskaya notes “We are not ahead of the planet in anything but space.”
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
Abandoned since the fall of the Soviet Union
The site is not all abandoned buildings and warehouses; the currently-used launch facilities are some of the most advanced in the world. As of the latest census, the town of Baikonur (Leninsk) has over 36,000 residents.
Astronauts, visiting engineers, and western administrators stay in upscale hotels which can cost more than $340 per night.
When the Kazakh government estimated Baikonur’s value in 2011 at $3.4 billion (USD), they reminded others it is one of few operational space launch sites in the world.
Despite the formal agreement with Russia, tensions often run high over operational disagreements.
Russia wants Kazakhstan to keep vagrants from scavenging equipment and squatting in the facilities; Kazakhstan points to housing shortages and high unemployment issues stemming from Russia’s lesser investment than years past.
Today Russia is building Vostochny, a launch complex intended to reduce Russia’s dependency on Baikonur. When it is completed in 2018, the Russian-Kazakh partnership at Baikonur will be further threatened.
Baikonur & Energia photos courtesy alexpgp
Did You Know?
* The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert is the Chinese version of Baikonur, leading the country in launches and with a long resume of “firsts” for Chinese space exploration.
* Watch Baikonur launches:
- 5/14/2012: Soyuz launch of Next ISS (above, courtesy Bill Ingalls, NASA)
- 7/22/2012: Soyuz-FG launch
- 4/19/2013: Soyuz-2 launch carrying a Bion M-1
- 6/3/2013: Proton-M launch of SES-6
- 11/25/2013: Soyuz launch as part of Urthecast Project to the ISS.
* Impressive non-Baikonur launch: Watch the world’s largest rocket, a 23-store tall Delta IV Heavy, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
* Watch Launch failures:
- United States: Titan 1, 1959
- United States: Delta II, Cape Canaveral, Florida 1997
- Russia: Proton M explosion catastrophe, July 2nd, 2013. (alternate: Eyewitness video)
* How does one move a Buran shuttle? With the world’s largest aircraft, of course. Read the S-I feature of the Antonov An-225 Mriya. (pictured below)
Anatoly Zak visited in the 1980s and shared his experience at Russian Space Web:
“During my army service in the 1980s, at a remote site in northern Russia, I was sometimes asked to draw a propaganda poster, a leaflet or a sign for our barracks. Even though, my army-commissioned art was mostly limited to crude copying of the portraits of Vladimir Lenin or primitive exercises in typography, I found my “artistic experiments” as a great relief from exhaustion of daily conscript service.
I remembered this experience years later on one trip to Baikonur, when I saw a soldier painting a picture of a rocket on a large block of concrete, which marked the entrance into the launch facility.
When driving around Baikonur, a careful observer could notice numerous walls, road signs or simply pieces of concrete touched by a brush of unknown artists. Some artwork still reminded about old ideology, intentionally or unintentionally preserved as in some sort of time capsule, some were brand-new, poeticizing the exploration of space rather then “the party line.” No doubt, the majority of this uncelebrated paintings and sculptures had been created by conscripts, who spend most of their two-year service in Baikonur repairing roads, laying bricks, driving trucks and guarding gates.
Being a fan of architecture and painting myself, I tried to preserve on film as many examples of the “soldiers’ art” as possible. The result was this page dedicated to those countless conscript painters and sculptors, to their time, life, talent and often unwilling sacrifice to the exploration of space.”
The Motovoz Trains & Baikonur Rail System
The handling of nuclear warheads and necessity for utmost secrecy resulted in a network of launch sites spread across hundreds of miles.
To move large pieces of equipment across a barren land, a heavy-duty rail system was used.
The rail system at Baikonur is one of the largest industrial railways in the world. For over 50 years it has been used for logistics, personnel transport, rocket construction, and all stages of launch preparation.
(click to enlarge)
The now-legendary Motovoz trains were initially 1930s-era vintage cars with wooden furniture, plywood bunk beds, and broken lavatories. In the summer the rail cars became saunas, prompting some to partially undress; consequently men and women traveled in separate cars.
Air-conditioned rail cars did not arrive in Baikonur until the early 1980s, by which time shelters had been added to protect the trains from the searing desert heat.
Conditions have improved, but the Motovoz is no Train à Grande Vitesse.
For the Map Explorers: The Launchpads of Baikonur Cosmodrome
- Pad 90/20 (90R): Tsyklon-2. (satellite view)
- Pad 110/38 (110R): N-1 (inactive after 1969). (satellite view)
1 – Soyuz rocket (Gagarin’s) launch pad
2 – Space museum at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Korolev’s and Gagarin’s museum
2A – Soyuz rocket, Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo ship processing area
2B – Soyuz rocket and payload processing area
3 – Oxygen/nitrogen proguction facility
5 – Radio transmission center
15A – Krainiy Airport
17 – Cosmonaut Hotel
18 – IP-1 measurement post
21 – Vega measurement post
23 – Saturn measurement post
31 – Soyuz-Vostok rocket launch pad, rocket and payload processing area
32 – Technical complex for Soyuz-Vostok rocket
|42 – Zenit rocket and payload processing area
43 – IP-2 measurement post
45 – Zenit rocket launch pad
81 – Proton rocket launch pad
90 – Tsyklon rocket launch pad
91 – Fueling/neutralization station for Proton rocket
92 – Proton rocket and processing area; storage facility of rockets, spacecraft and upper stages
110 – Energia rocket launch pad
110A – Dynamic test stand of Energia rocket
112 – Energia rocket and Energia-Buran space system processing area
112A – Fueling station for Buran space shuttle
200 – Proton launch pad
250 – Universal launch pad/test stand of Energia rocket
251 – Buran space shuttle landing complex
254 – Technical complex for Soyuz spacecraft