Russian Aerospace Forces
|Location||Kazakhstan leased to Russia|
|Time zone||UTC+06:00 (+06:00)|
|Elevation AMSL||90 m / 295 ft|
The Baikonur Cosmodrome (Kazakh: Байқоңыр ғарыш айлағы, romanized: Baıqońyr ǵarysh aılaǵy; Russian: Космодро́м Байкону́р, romanized: Kosmodrom Baykonur) is a spaceport located in an area of southern Kazakhstan leased to Russia.
The Cosmodrome is the world's first and largest operational space launch facility. The spaceport is located in the desert steppe of Baikonur, about 200 kilometres (120 mi) east of the Aral Sea and north of the river Syr Darya. It is near the Tyuratam railway station and is about 90 metres (300 ft) above sea level. Baikonur cosmodrome and the city of Baikonur celebrated the 63rd anniversary of the foundation on 2 June 2018.
The shape of the area leased is an ellipse, measuring 90 kilometres (56 mi) east–west by 85 kilometres (53 mi) north–south, with the cosmodrome at the centre. It was originally built by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s as the base of operations for the Soviet space program. Under the current Russian space program, Baikonur remains a busy spaceport, with numerous commercial, military, and scientific missions being launched annually. All crewed Russian spaceflights are launched from Baikonur.
Both Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and Vostok 1, the first human spaceflight, were launched from Baikonur. The launch pad used for both missions was renamed Gagarin's Start in honor of Russian Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, pilot of Vostok 1 and first human in space.
The Soviet government issued the decree for Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 (NIIP-5; Russian: 5-й Научно-Исследовательский Испытательный Полигон, Pjáty Naúchno-Isslédovatel'skii Ispytátel'nyi Poligón) on 12 February 1955. It was actually founded on 2 June 1955, originally a test center for the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 Semyorka. NIIP-5 was soon expanded to include launch facilities for space flights. The site was selected by a commission led by General Vasily Voznyuk, influenced by Sergey Korolyov, the Chief Designer of the R-7 ICBM, and soon the man behind the Soviet space program. It had to be surrounded by plains, as the radio control system of the rocket required (at the time) receiving uninterrupted signals from ground stations hundreds of kilometres away. Additionally, the missile trajectory had to be away from populated areas. Also, it is advantageous to place space launch sites closer to the equator, as the surface of the Earth has higher rotational speed in such areas. Taking these constraints into consideration, the commission chose Tyuratam, a village in the heart of the Kazakh Steppe. The expense of constructing the launch facilities and the several hundred kilometres of new road and train lines made the Cosmodrome one of the most costly infrastructure projects undertaken by the Soviets. A supporting town was built around the facility to provide housing, schools, and infrastructure for workers. It was raised to city status in 1966 and named Leninsk (Russian: Ленинск).
The American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane found and photographed the Tyuratam missile test range for the first time on 5 August 1957.
There are conflicting sources about origins of the name Baikonur. Some sources say that the name was deliberately chosen in 1961 (around the time of Gagarin's flight) to misdirect the Western Bloc to a place about 320 kilometres (200 mi) northeast of the launch center, the small mining town of Baikonur near Jezkazgan.
Other sources state that Baikonur was name of the Tyuratam region even before the cosmodrome existed. Leninsk, the closed city built to support the cosmodrome, was renamed Baikonur on 20 December 1995 by Boris Yeltsin.
Russian scientist Afanasiy Ilich Tobonov researched mass animal deaths in the 1990s and concluded that the mass deaths of birds and wildlife in the Sakha Republic were noted only along the flight paths of space rockets launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Dead wildlife and livestock were usually incinerated, and the participants in these incinerations, including Tobonov himself, his brothers and inhabitants of his native village of Eliptyan, commonly died from stroke or cancer. In 1997, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation changed the flight path and removed the ejected rocket stages near Nyurbinsky District, Russia.
Scientific literature collected data that indicated adverse effects of rockets on the environment and the health of the population. UDMH, a fuel used in Russian rocket engines, is highly toxic. It is one of the reasons for acid rains and cancers in the local population, near the cosmodrome. Valery Yakovlev, a head of the laboratory of ecosystem research of the State scientific-production union of applied ecology "Kazmechanobr", notes: "Scientists have established the extreme character of the destructive influence of the "Baikonur" space center on environment and population of the region: 11 000 tons of space scrap metal, polluted by especially toxic UDMH is still laying on the falling grounds". Scrap recovery is part of the local economy.
Many historic flights lifted off from Baikonur: the first operational ICBM; the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957; the first spacecraft to travel close to the Moon, Luna 1, on 2 January 1959; the first crewed and orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin on 12 April 1961; and the flight of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. 14 cosmonauts of 13 other nations, such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, India and France, started their journeys from here as well under the Interkosmos program. In 1960, a prototype R-16 ICBM exploded before launch, killing over 100 people. Baikonur is also the site where Venera 9 and Mars 3 were launched from.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian space program continued to operate from Baikonur under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia wanted to sign a 99-year lease for Baikonur, but agreed to a US$115 million annual lease of the site for 20 years with an option for a 10-year extension. On 8 June 2005, the Russian Federation Council ratified an agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan extending Russia's rent term of the spaceport until 2050. The rent price—which remained fixed at US$115,000,000 per year – is the source of a long-running dispute between the two countries. In an attempt to reduce its dependency on Baikonur, Russia is constructing the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast.
Baikonur has been a major part of Russia's contribution to the International Space Station (ISS), as it is the only spaceport from which Russian missions to the ISS are launched. It is Baikonur's position at ~46° N latitude that dictates the 51.6° orbital inclination of the ISS – this is the lowest inclination that can be reached directly by Soyuz boosters launched from Baikonur that do not involve flying over China. With the conclusion of NASA's Space Shuttle program in 2011, Baikonur became the sole launch site used for crewed missions to the ISS until the launch of Crew Dragon Demo-2 in 2020.
In 2019, Gagarin's Start hosted three crewed launches, in March, July and September, before being decommissioned by the Russian government due to lack of funds. The final launch from Gagarin's Start took place 25 September 2019.
Downrange from the launchpad, spent launch equipment is dropped directly on the ground where it is salvaged by the workers and the local population.
As part of the Buran program, several facilities were adapted or newly built for the Buran-class space shuttle orbiters:
All Baikonur's logistics are based on its own intra-site 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 27⁄32 in) gauge railway network, which is the largest industrial railway on the planet. The railway is used for all stages of launch preparation, and all spacecraft are transported to the launchpads by the special Schnabel cars. Once part of the Soviet Railroad Troops, the Baikonur Railway is now served by a dedicated civilian state company. There are several rail links connecting the Baikonur Railway to the public railway of Kazakhstan and the rest of the world.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome has two on-site multi-purpose airports, serving both the personnel transportation needs and the logistics of space launches (including the delivery of the spacecraft by planes). There are scheduled passenger services from Moscow to the smaller Krayniy Airport (IATA: BXY, ICAO: UAOL), which however are not accessible to the public. The larger Yubileyniy Airport (Юбилейный аэропорт) (IATA: UAON) was where the Buran orbiter was transported to Baikonur on the back of the Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft.
Although Baikonur has always been known around the world as the launch site of Soviet and Russian space missions, from its outset in 1955 and until the collapse of the USSR in 1991 the primary purpose of this center was to test liquid-fueled ballistic missiles. The official (and secret) name of the center was State Test Range No. 5 or 5 GIK. It remained under the control of the Soviet and Russian Ministry of Defense until the second half of the 1990s, when the Russian civilian space agency and its industrial contractors started taking over individual facilities.
In 2006, the head of Roskosmos, Anatoly Perminov, said that the last Russian military personnel would be removed from the Baikonur facility by 2007. However, on 22 October 2008, an SS-19 Stiletto missile was test-fired from Baikonur, indicating this may not be the case.
On 22 December 2004, Kazakhstan and Russia signed a contract establishing the "Russia–Kazakhstan Baiterek JV" joint venture, in which each country holds a 50% stake. The goal of the project is the construction of the Bayterek ("poplar tree") space launch complex, to facilitate operations of the Russian Angara rocket launcher. This will allow launches with a payload of 26 tons to low Earth orbit, compared to 20 tons using the Proton system. An additional benefit will be that the Angara uses kerosene as fuel and oxygen as the oxidiser, which is less hazardous to the environment than the toxic fuels used by older boosters. The total expenditure on the Kazakh side will be US$223 million over 19 years. As of 2010, the project was stalling due to insufficient funding. It was thought that the project still had good chances to succeed because it will allow both parties – Russia and Kazakhstan – to continue the joint use of Baikonur even after the Vostochny Cosmodrome is commissioned. The first scheduled launch of the Baiterek Rocket and Space Complex is scheduled for 2025.
Baikonur Cosmodrome has a small museum, next to two small cottages, once residences of Sergey Korolev and Yuri Gagarin. Both cottages are part of the museum complex and have been preserved. The museum is home to a collection of space artifacts. A restored test artifact from the Soviet Buran programme sits next to the museum entrance. The vehicle that flew a single orbital test mission in 1988 was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002; For a complete list of Buran artifacts, see Buran (spacecraft).
The museum also houses photographs related to the cosmodrome's history, including images of all cosmonauts. Every crew of every expedition launched from Baikonur leaves behind a signed crew photograph that is displayed behind the glass.
Baikonur's museum holds many objects related to Gagarin, including the ground control panel from his flight, his uniforms, and soil from his landing site, preserved in a silver container. One of the museum rooms also holds an older version of the Soyuz descent capsule.
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