Humanity’s unlikely door to space
In the documentary about his record-breaking time aboard the ISS, A Year in Space, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly described Baikonur as a sort of house halfway to space: “In some ways, this makes a little sense for me to come to a place like this first, which is already isolated from what is normal for you, because it feels more like a stepping stone to an even more secluded place. You know, a far away place to a farther place. “
In his book Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space, Stephen Walker wrote that controlling space is both an ideological quest and a military affair. Rockets were first developed for flying in space, but government minds quickly realized their potential to carry ballistic missiles capable of dropping bombs into distant enemy territory. Satellites orbiting Earth could also provide an astronomical view of alien lands that human spies would have difficulty reaching.
While in the early 1960s the United States tried to save face on its publicly blocked attempts to send a person into space, Soviet secrecy benefited the USSR’s agenda. If tragedy were to strike at an American launch, it would happen live on television, in front of the press and the nation. For the Soviets, secrecy offered the freedom to take greater risks and to act faster and with more urgency.
“The Soviets were protecting their missile site, protecting their technology – the R7 missile, in which Gagarin flew, was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile in the world at the time. And its secrets had to be protected. People were terrified of it. ‘idea that the Americans would get their hands on this technology, which they ultimately did, ”Walker told me.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Kazakhstan gained independence and, as a result, Russia’s most important space base was on foreign soil. In 1994, the Russians signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to lease Baikonur at a cost of around 7 billion rubles (£ 82.5 million) per year.
An increasing number of tourists are now visiting Baikonur to witness launches, especially crewed missions to the ISS, but the sense of secrecy remains today. The city is essentially a Russian enclave surrounded by Kazakhstan, and the cosmodrome is a small facility operated by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Travelers must take a guided tour organized by a certified operator to apply for a stack of entry permits.