Baikonur Cosmodrome. Located literally in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia. Hardly an attractive or easy place to travel to. Yet on the bucketlist of most of my spacegeek-friends on social media. I have written a few posts on this place already, most recently writing a travel guide to the city of Baikonur. This post describes Baikonur Cosmodrome from the perspective of its most important visitors. For space travelers Baikonur truly is the Last Place on Earth. Next stop: Space!
Over time, the last days on Earth that cosmonauts spend at this place have become rich with traditions. In the early days of space flight, ceremonies evolved to overcome nerves, probably even fear, and bring good luck to the space travelers. Nowadays these traditions are maintained with great care. Every new crew will go through a very similar ‘ritual’ in the weeks preceding a launch, literally following the footsteps of their predecessor Yuri Gagarin. When you visit the area during launch preparations, you can be part of these rituals.
This story has impressions of two visits to Baikonur. First visit was in December 2011, for the launch of Soyuz TMA-03M, followed by a visit in May 2014 for Soyuz TMA-13M. This explains the weather extremes in the photos. Snow and very cold in December, very hot in May. Please follow me on a virtual tour to the Last Place on Earth!
Gate to the Cosmodrome, coming from Baikonur City
In a previous post I described the strange geopolitical situation of Baikonur. The land on which the city and Cosmodrome are built, is leased by Russia from the Kazakhstan government. This agreement creates two Russian enclaves on Kazakh territory. The city and Cosmodrome are considered Russia. Cars have Russian licence plates and you pay with Russian Rubles. If you visit this place for a launch and you travel from Moscow, you will only need a Russian visa (plus a whole lot of special permits of course). The area surrounding, and also in between the city and the Cosmodrome, is Kazakhstan. In case you arrive here from Kazakhstan, only a Kazakh visa (plus the special permits) suffice. The two Russian areas are not connected, so you have to leave the city through a checkpoint, drive a few kilometers through Kazakhstan and then enter the Cosmodrome through another checkpoint.
Of course the most important visitors to Baikonur are the cosmonauts and astronauts, on their way to the International Space Station. To get a good overview of Baikonur, it is best to follow their journey. It takes years to prepare for a spaceflight. When travelling on Soyuz, crews get trained in Star City, near Moscow. Additionally there are several international training centers that train astronauts for their scientific work on board the International Space Station. About three weeks before launch the crew of three gathers in Moscow for their last exams and final preparations. They visit the Kremlin to put flowers at the Gagarin and Korolov memorial. Then they board a special aircraft for their last plane trip to the launch site in Baikonur, where they arrive at Krayniy Airport. This is the beginning of a two week quarantine period in Baikonur, a period rich of cosmonaut traditions.
See below the “Last City on Earth” map that looks at Baikonur from the cosmonaut point of view, taking you along all pre-launch ceremonies and traditions.
Last Days on Earth map of Baikonur and the Cosmodrome. [Click to Enlarge]
First stop on the trip upon arrival from Moscow is at the “Fisherman Statue”, just outside Krayniy Airport, just before entering the city.
Upon arrival in the city, the crew checks in to Hotel Cosmonaut. This hotel is available exclusively to the crew and their immediate support staff, who all go in quarantine. They live in a nice bungalow next to the actual hotel, sealed off from the outside world.
Right behind Hotel Cosmonaut is the famous “Cosmonaut Alley”. In this little park all crew members plant a tree.
The trees planted by the latest crew are tiny and will need a lot of care before growing into large trees in the harsh Kazakhstan climate. This is the tree planted by Alexander Gerst just before his launch in 2014.
This was the first tree planted in Cosmonaut Alley, by Yuri Gagarin, on the eve of his launch on 12 April 1961. It is a big tree now!
At the end of Cosmonaut Alley you find a large model of a Soyuz rocket and a platform overlooking the Syr Darya River, on the eastern end of the city.
Before their flight, the crew will visit two museums. First is the Museum of the History of the Cosmodrome in the city. This is also where they have a traditional Kazakh tea ceremony.
If you are lucky, Museum staff will let visitors perform the pre-launch tea ceremony too. This is me with my friends in 2014.
All crews will get a display in the museum with their official crew photo and their mission patches.
They love signatures on everything in Baikonur. Posters, models, photos, hotel room doors. Crew signatures are everywhere! Recognize these names? This was a few days before the Soyuz TMA-13M launch in May 2014.
On the Cosmodrome itself the crew will visit the two original houses of Sergei Korolov and Yuri Gagarin, built here in 1961. This is where Gagarin spent his last night before his launch, only two kilometers or so away from the launch pad. The house and its interior have been left exactly like Gagarin left it in April 1961 (photo December 2011).
In the central area of the Cosmodrome, at site #2 there is the “other” Baikonur space museum. Another opportunity for the crew to sign their names and leave some souvenirs!
The first real launch related event is the roll out of the Soyuz rocket, about four days prior to the launch, from this building in complex 112. Traditionally only the backup crew attends this event, that always takes place at 6:00 sharp, in the morning. This picture shows the assembly hall a day after rollout. The rocket is gone. Only parts of the next rocket, neatly covered, are left in the hall.
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.
Two days after the rocket roll-out the press and VIP’s are invited to the launch pad for the rocket blessing ceremony. It is a HUGE honour to walk onto the most famous launch pad in the world. It is from here where Sputnik launched in 1957, and Gagarin took his last steps on Earth before launching in 1961!
Father Sergei and his assistant carry a big bottle of holy water to the rocket to bless it and wish it a good flight.
After blessing the rocket he traditionally blesses the press!
About 24 hours before the launch the crew will have its last press conference, held behind glass at Hotel Cosmonaut. They appear together with their backup crew, so there are usually six cosmonauts present.
The Soyuz TMA-13M crew took a selfie with us on the other side of the glass. Pretty cool to be in a picture like this! (photo credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman)
At the end of the press conference the crew prepares to leave Hotel Cosmonaut and go to the Cosmodrome a few hours later.
A large crowd will wait for the “hotel walkout” ceremony, where the crew walks from the hotel to the buses to go to the Cosmodrome.
Both crews walk out of the hotel to the buses, accompanied by the crew doctors and their immediate families.
The buses take the crew to building 254, at five kilometers from the launch pad, where they change into their Sokol space suits for launch.
Traditionally the crew walks out of the building to report ready for launch for the “State Commission”. This used to be a Soviet military commission, but now consists of high ranking Roscosmos officials, often supported by their NASA, ESA or JAXA counterparts for foreign astronauts.
Each crew member stands on a designated spot, marked on the ground. The Soyuz commander stands in the middle, facing the State Commission. Awesome to be so close to the action here! In this picture left to right: Alexander Gerst (ESA), Maxim Surayev (Roscosmos) and Reid Wiseman (NASA).
From here the crew will drive directly to the launch pad and get on board the Soyuz capsule on top of the fully fueled rocket. We are at about 4 hours to lift-off!
As soon as the crew is on board the backup crew is released from their backup position and the launch pad is closed off to prepare for launch.
Family, VIP’s, press and other visitors are taken to site #18, at about 1.2 kilometers from launch pad #1. We had a great time chatting to the backup crew and our Russian Orthodox “Space Priest” Father Sergei here. In this picture we see cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, Samantha Cristoforetti and Terry Virts. The building behind us serves drinks and snacks. The viewing pavilion sits to the left of the picture.
From this viewing site you can easily see the rocket standing on the pad. You clearly hear the loud hissing sounds of the liquid oxygen supply. This is at about 20 minutes to launch, when the support tower is retracted.
Without the tower, the white rocket is clearly visible on the flat steppe. In case of a night launch lights will brightly light the platform and rocket.
The launch itself is a magical experience. At night it is like a sudden and fast sunrise over the desert. In clear weather, the rocket can be followed all the way to booster separation and sometimes even to second stage shut off, that is after about six minutes.
The launch is often the last part of a Baikonur launch tour. In recent years a new element was added, as the rendez-vous trajectory of Soyuz with the International Space Station was reduced from 48 hours to 6 hours. This means that the crew will arrive at the ISS six hours after lift-off. The docking procedure is often broadcasted live and culminates in an emotional ISS hatch opening procedure and the first press conference of the new crew from space. This used to be a conference between the ISS and Mission Control in Moscow, but due to the fast track flight, this press conference is now between ISS and Baikonur. Family, VIP’s and some press are gathered in a converted movie theater in the city for this.
In 2014 our press group had the privilege to watch docking and the crew press conference from the Tsenki theater, right next to Hotel Cosmonaut.
This is the second blog post about Baikonur that is based on a visit in May 2014. It is not easy to visit Baikonur, due to remoteness, limited tourism facilities, very expensive permits and unclear visit procedures, making it sometimes possible to visit places, and sometimes not. Please find all practical information in my previous post about “Space City Baikonur”.
Baikonur Blog Trilogy
This blog post is part II in a series about Baikonur Cosmodrome. Please also read:
Part I: Space City Baikonur – A Travel Guide
Part III: Baikonur Cosmodrome – Gateway to Space
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!