Baikonur Cosmodrome is the largest space port in the world. Thousands of launches have taken place from here, making it the true birth place of space exploration. Worldwide it is only rivaled by Kennedy Space Center in the United States. Many ‘firsts’ in space were constructed and launched from Baikonur, starting with Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, in 1957. The first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, launched from here in 1961, as did the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963.
Most space stations launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. This started with the secretive Salyut stations in the 1960’s, followed with MIR. Also the first element of the International Space Station, “Zarya” launched on a Proton rocket from pad 81 Baikonur in 1998, followed by many more over the years.
Nowadays Baikonur is best known as the space port for all manned launches to the International Space Station. It is used to launch all Russian, American, European and Japanese crew members to the ISS. The only other human space flight launch center is in China, which is mostly still experimental. Until the Americans start launching commercial crews from US soil, Baikonur will remain the single point of entry for people into space for several years.
There are many ways to describe Baikonur Cosmodrome. It can be described from a historic point of view, starting with the simple desert camp constructed near pad 1 in 1955, where soldiers lived in tents while building the first very secret launch complexes for the R-7 intercontinental missile, developed by Soviet Chief Engineer Sergei Korolev. Or it can described from a technical point of view, describing all different launch facilities and buildings that were constructed to support assembly and launch of all kinds of Soviet and later international launch systems. The two links in this paragraph lead to very detailed descriptions by Russian space flight expert Anatoly Zak.
This blog post describes the Cosmodrome for visitors who don’t go to space (Baikonur for space travelers was my previous post). For many people interested in space, or in world history, there is a lot to see and do at the Cosmodrome. The good thing is that all this space flight history is still present. The area is so large that there is no need to demolish anything, to make room for new construction. Historic and modern facilities exist side to side. The old stuff is left to the elements to slowly rust away, while modern installations are kept up to date.
Please follow me for a virtual tour of Baikonur Cosmodrome:
Map of the Cosmodrome indicating the most important sites for visitors. [Click to enlarge]
The road leading from the city of Baikonur onto the cosmodrome forks into three parts, after about 20 kilometers. This fork symbolizes the history of Russian space flight, which in the 1950’s and 60’s was dominated by three chief engineers. Each of them was assigned a part of the cosmodrome to work on their systems. The central part was dedicated to Sergei Korolov, the grand master Chief Engineer of the R-7 program, that later became better known as the Soyuz program. The right side (eastern part) of the cosmodrome was assigned to Mikhail Yangel, who developed the R-16 and R-36 ICBM, versions of which later became the Tsyklon and Dnepr space launch systems. The left side (western part) of the area was used by Vladimir Chelomei, known initially for developing ICBM’s (like most of his peers) and later for the Almaz Space Station and the Proton heavy launcher, still in use today.
Immediately after passing the Cosmodrome main gate in the southern part of the complex, you pass the Saturn tracking station. It has large antennas to track for example the Molniya communication satellites, and dishes for special missions, like Phobos-Grunt.
The historic split in the road lays out the basics of the Baikonur Cosmodrome map. Soyuz are launched from the central part of the area, Zenit and Dnepr towards the east and Proton in the west.
Baikonur Cosmodrome Central: Soyuz, N1, Energia and Buran
The central road (and rail road) from the city onto the Cosmodrome leads almost straight to launch pad 1, where it all began.
All launch pads, including the inactive, have very strict security. Visiting the Cosmodrome means going through lots of gates.
Photography rules are very random. When travelling as press or as a visitor of manned launches it is fine to take any pictures around the pads. However, rules on other pads and at other times may be different, often only depending on the security guard on duty.
Baikonur is as much about trains as it is about rockets. Hundreds of kilometers of track are built to transport anything from people commuting to work to rockets to their launch pads. This is the famous Soyuz rocket train near launch pad 1.
There are two launch sites for Soyuz. Normally all manned launches are from pad 1 and unmanned Progress launches from pad 31. This is pad 31 after we visited, but were not allowed to take pictures inside the gates in 2011.
Some tours will allow access to the integration facilities, like here in building 112. This is the hall where the Soyuz rockets for manned launches are assembled. Photography was in initially not allowed, until one of the engineers we met gave his permission.
The largest building in the central part of the Cosmodrome is building 254, where the Soyuz capsules are assembled and the cosmonauts put on their space suits prior to launch.
The Soyuz rocket assembly hall is right next to this hall 112, the roof of which collapsed in 2002, burying the Energia super-heavy booster and the Buran shuttle orbiter. The site was left as-is until 2016.
The northwest part of the central area has two abandoned historic launch pads. Pads 110 and 250 were built to accommodate two of the biggest Russian rockets ever: the N1 Moon rocket and the later Energia heavy rocket. The latter carried Polyus and Buran into orbit from here. This here is site 250.
One of the three flame trenches of launch pad 250. From here Energia launched the Polyus military spacecraft in 1987.
All launch towers at this massive launch pad are left to the elements, having been abandoned after the Energia-Buran program was cancelled in 1989.
Looking towards launch complex 110, built for the N1 Moon rocket, then converted for Energia-Buran. From here four failed attempts to launch the N1 took place, followed by the successful launch of the Soviet Buran space shuttle in 1988. The pad remains unused ever since.
One of the most interesting places for visitors to the Cosmodrome is the space museum at site #2.
The museum has an interesting collection of rocket parts and all kinds of mission memorabilia. The most interesting items are to be found in the garden outside, including this Buran shuttle engineering model.
Several used rocket parts that were retrieved from the steppe after launch…
…and an eclectic collection of vehicles used over the years at the Cosmodrome.
Baikonur Cosmodrome West: Proton City
One of the most active areas is located at the western end of the Cosmodrome, about 75 kilometers from the entrance. This is the sign at Proton launch site #200.
In December 2011 we were allowed to walk around one of the active launch pads, that was being prepared for a Proton launch later that week.
The launch pad had a launcher simulator in it, that was held over the flame pit to test the launch pad connections to the rocket.
The Proton launch tower has different adjustable levels that allow engineers to work on the rocket on the pad.
This is the exhaust of the launch pit at launch complex 200, leading out to a sloping flame trench, typical for any rocket launch pad.
When driving the long distances over the complex you may spot typical Central Asian wildlife, like these camels. Apparently these animals also thrive in the very cold conditions of the steppe winter.
Baikonur Cosmodrome East: Zenit and Dnepr
The least used part of the Cosmodrome is the eastern flank. This is one of two launch pads on site 45, used for Zenit-2 launchers. This pad 45/2 was destroyed when a Zenit-2 rocket with a Russian military satellite failed 3 seconds after lift-off, fell back down and exploded on the pad in 1990.
The launch pad was completely destroyed, and never restored. It is now a treacherous pile of concrete and metal rubble. Apparently it is okay to show this to tourists.
Baikonur Blog Trilogy
This blog post is part III in a series of three about Baikonur Cosmodrome. Part I has all the practical information you need to know for a visit to this place. Also read:
Part I: Space City Baikonur – A Travel Guide
Part II: Baikonur Cosmodrome – The Last Place on Earth
You may also enjoy reading my Baikonur launch trip stories, written in 2011:
Part I: Getting to Baikonur
Part II: Baikonur Launch Blog – A Soviet City
Part III: Baikonur Launch Blog – Space History and More Space History
Part IV: Baikonur Launch Blog – Launch Day!