If you’re a fan of all things Soviet and urban exploration, you’ll have likely seen what looks like the commonly shared photos which look like the holy grail of urbex: an abandoned Soviet space shuttles gathering dust in the desert. Where is this place? This is the Baikonur cosmodrome. Today, we’re going to look into the history behind it.
The story of the Baikonur cosmodrome begins back in 1955 in what is now the independent country of Kazakhstan. During that year, the government of the Soviet Union issued a decree for the so-called “Scientific Research Test Range No. 5”. The test range was set up in an area of Kazakhstan called Tyuratam and at the time was called NIIP-5.
Originally, it was a test centre for the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the R-7 Semyorka missile. However, NIIP-5 was soon transformed into a large facility with the ability to launch expeditions into space. The centre was surrounded by the vast open plains characteristic of Kazakhstan.
The reason for this was that the radio control system of Soviet rockets, during that era, needed to receive completely uninterrupted signals from ground stations hundreds of kilometres away. Naturally, a location in the wilderness was also vital for the trajectory of the rockets to be away from the civilian population.
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. Of course, despite trying their utmost best to keep it a secret, the Soviet project was snapped from above by a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane from the U.S. Air Force in the summer of 1957.
In such a remote location, the cost of creating space launch facilities as well as new roads and train lines made NIIP-5 one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in the history of the Soviet Union. So many workers were involved that a nearby town was built to accommodate them all. Featuring apartment blocks, bars, schools, and more, it was later deemed a city and given the name of Leninsk.
The Birth of Baikonur
Many historic flights lifted off from NIIP-5: the first operational ICBM; the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957; the first spacecraft to travel close to the Moon, Luna 1, in 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.
It was Yuri Gagarin who was one of the main reasons behind the renaming of the base as Baikonur. Many claim that the name of Baikonur was deliberately chosen around the time of Gagarin’s flight in 1961 in order to misdirect the West to a place about 200 miles from the launch centre: the small mining town of Baikonur near Jezkazgan.
Throughout the Soviet period, 14 cosmonauts of 13 other nations, such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, India and France, started their journeys from Baikonur under the Interkosmos program. In 1960, a prototype R-16 ICBM exploded before launch, killing over 100 people.
Of course, such a huge rocket base is bound to have an effect on the environment and local population. UDMH, a fuel used in Russian rocket engines, is highly toxic and is one of the leading causes of acid rains and cancers in the local population living near the Baikonur cosmodrome. Additionally, over 11,000 tons of UDMH contaminated scrap metal is still laying on the falling grounds. However, Scrap recovery is also a significant part of the local economy.
Baikonur Cosmodrome After the USSR
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian space program continued to operate from Baikonur under the Commonwealth of Independent States. Initially, Russia was aiming for a 99-year lease for Baikonur in the newly independent Kazakhstan. Eventually, they agreed to a US$115 million annual lease of the site for 20 years with an option for a 10-year extension.
The astronomical rent price that Russia has to pay for the Baikonur Cosmodrome often causes friction between them and Kazakhstan. As a result, Russia is constructing the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast to reduce how much they need to rely on Baikonur. But for now, the only spaceport from which Russian missions to the International Space Station (ISS) are launched. As such, the Baikonur Cosmodrome has been a major part of Russia’s contribution to the ISS.
These days, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is available for private tours and is often attended by tourists from around the world aiming to see a live space launch. YPT has also run multiple tours to Baikonur Cosmodrome over the years.
Due to the vastness of the cosmodrome, there are various landing stages and hangars that are left abandoned to the Kazakh steppe. Naturally, they are a magnet for hardcore urbex hunters, despite the obvious dangers.