Headwind for the Russian spaceport Baikonur

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When three cosmonauts fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-March, not all of them look enthusiastically at the sky in Kazakhstan. Around the Baikonur spaceport, the voices that the Russian Soyuz rockets would like to banish are getting louder. But nothing will come of it that quickly. Russia is allowed to use the launch pads in the steppe until at least 2050. The proud space nation is dependent on them because the construction work on its own spaceport in eastern Russia is dragging on.

The Soviet Union made history with Baikonur. In 1957 the Soviets launched the first Sputnik-1 satellite into orbit from there. Four years later, Yuri Gagarin was the first person to take off into space. Baikonur was established in 1955 after the Moscow government decided to build research and testing site number 5 at the Tyuratam train station. The project was initially top secret.

The facility in Central Asia, a good 2,100 kilometers from Moscow, offers ideal conditions: there are no large residential areas in the steppe. Precipitation is rare, which is why manned take-offs are often accompanied by beautiful weather. And because of their proximity to the equator, missiles can use the momentum of the earth’s rotation on their thousands of kilometers long flight over Russian territory.

The problem for Moscow, however, is that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s declaration of independence 30 years ago, Baikonur is abroad. Every year, Russia pays its Central Asian neighbor more than 100 million euros in lease. Just a few months ago, the parliament of the ex-Soviet republic extended the 1994 treaty with Russia – until 2050.

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Transfers are welcome in Kazakhstan. According to the Kazakh media, the minister responsible for space travel, Bagdat Mussin, recently named the sum of around 2.6 billion euros that Russia had paid in lease over the past 27 years.

Politicians in the country have an interest in ensuring that the spaceport is used for as long as possible. “Baikonur has a special place in space exploration,” said the head of the upper house of the Kazakh parliament, Maulen Ashimbayev. The station should be used as effectively as possible. The facility is more than twice the size of the Saarland. According to the Russian space agency Roskosmos, more than 10,000 people work there.

“115 million US dollars for all of this – a ridiculous sum,” says Kazakh political scientist Rassul Schumaly. Critical voices like these were not uncommon in the Kazakh media in the course of the discussion about an extension of the lease agreement.

The state agency Kazinform of the authoritarian-ruled country quoted Senator Murat Baktijaruly, who spoke of problems surrounding Baikonur that had remained unsolved despite many complaints. “Every time a missile takes off, the weather is disturbed and the strong wind lasts for at least four to five days,” he said. In recent years, the number of people with cardiovascular diseases has also increased. Above all, the rocket fuel residues are seen by people as a threat to their health.

But there is no broad protest against the gateway to space. Experts speak out in favor of maintaining Baikonur, but in the hands of a consortium with the participation of international companies. But Russia shouldn’t get involved in that for the time being. The space nation is building its own complex on Russian territory in order to be independent. But Vostochny in the east of the country on the border with China is only in operation to a limited extent.

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The plant around 6000 kilometers east of Moscow was opened in 2016 and should have been fully functional long ago. But there are always delays – due to corruption cases, bankrupt construction companies or court decisions. Launch ramps for newer rockets such as the Angara are currently being built there.

Satellite dishes on the premises
(Image: vostokdrom.ru)

Russia’s space chief Dmitry Rogozin expects work on Vostochny to be completed by the end of 2022. Then the new systems are to be tested. In addition to Baikonur and Vostochny, Russia can also fall back on the Plesetsk spaceport in the north of the country, which is mainly used for military purposes.

Since the US space agency NASA started using spacecraft from private companies and stopped booking seats in Russian rockets, the number of manned flights has declined. Baikonur is still needed, said the scientific director of the Moscow Institute for Space Policy, Ivan Moiseyev, on state television: “Vostochny will not replace Baikonur, at least not until the end of the lease contract concluded with Kazakhstan by 2050.”


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