Reaching for the stars: Baikonur Cosmosdrome

Here is the story of a strong Pontian Greek connection to this very Russian cosmosdrome

Once upon a time it was almost every Soviet boy’s dream to reach for the stars and follow in the footsteps of Yuri Gargarin, who made history on 12 April 1961 when Vostok 1 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Earth. Soviet girls weren’t too far behind either, trying to emulate cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space in 1963.

What most people don’t know is that the launch facilities that propelled these two cosmonauts into space are located in the desert steppes of what is now the independent republic of Kazakhstan. Baikonur Cosmodrome is the world’s largest operational space facility. Located 200 km east of the steadily shrinking Aral Sea, Baikonur Cosmodrome is operated jointly by the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Russian Space Forces. In 2005, an agreement was ratified where Russia would pay Kazakhstan $US115 million fixed annual rent until 2050 for the use of the spaceport.

The cosmodrome spans an area of 7360 square kilometres and contains dozens of launch pads, five tracking-control centres and nine tracking stations. It is by far Russia’s busiest and most important space port with numerous commercial, military and scientific missions being launched annually. It is capable of putting satellites in lunar, planetary and geostationary orbit launches. Its importance has heightened recently with the NASA’s retirement of the Space Shuttle program and has now become the sole launch site for manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Baikonur has been in this position before. In 2003 when the US Space Shuttle Program was suspended after the Columbia disaster, Baikonur played a key role in supplying and supporting the ISS. The launch facility was established in 1955 and initially used as a test site for Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. In October 1957, the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched from Baikonur. In the beginning the name caused some confusion as it was deliberately chosen to misdirect the West as Baikonur was a mining town 320km northeast of the launch facilities. The main cosmodrome-supporting town was actually called Leninsk but was officially renamed Baikonur in 1995. Many historic flights have lifted off from Baikonur. It was the centre of the Soviet Intercosmos program where cosmonauts selected from Warsaw Pact countries, allies of the Soviet Union and non-aligned countries received full training for space missions.

Apart from playing a key role in the ISS program, the cosmodrome has also been instrumental in promoting space tourism, a niche form of tourism aimed at those who have a few tens of millions of dollars in spare change. Dennis Tito, an American businessman, became Baikonur’s first space tourist in 2001, paying $US20 million to spend 8 days in space. Furthermore a steady stream of tourists has been coming to Baikonur as part tour groups that cater for space enthusiasts. Their visits coincide with expected launches. There is a museum complex that houses space artefacts including the Buran (Soviet Space Shuttle). Two small cottages that were once the residences of Yuri Gagarin and Sergey Korolev , the leader of the Soviet Space Program during its Space Race with the US, have been meticulously preserved.

It may also astound many but there is a very strong Pontian Greek connection to Baikonur. Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who has the Greek name of Theodoros Grammatikopoulos, has taken off twice from Baikonur. The first time was as mission commander aboard the Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft on April 2007. On board were also fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and space tourist Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian-American software millionaire and former Microsoft executive. The Soyuz spacecraft docked with the ISS and Fyodor spent 197 days in space that also included three spacewalks. This launch was witnessed by a delegation from FILIA, the Kazakh-Kyrgyz Greek Friendship Association.

During Fyodor’s second launch from Baikonur in June 2010, he was accompanied by NASA astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker, and spent 163 days aboard the ISS. Paradoxically Fyodor’s first time in space was in October 2002, where he took part in an 11-day mission to the ISS on board Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Cape Kennedy Space Centre. Fyodor was born in Batumi (Soviet Georgia, nowadays Adjara autonomous republic of Georgia) in 1959 to Pontic Greek parents, Nikolai and Mikrula, who now live in Sindos, Thessaloniki.

After finishing high school in Batumi he entered the Moscow Aviation Institute in 1983 and qualified as a mechanical engineer specialising in airspace vehicles. He has also obtained a PhD in Economics and became a cosmonaut candidate in 1997. He likes to recall the story of his wife, Larisa Anatolievna, who was not exactly enamoured by the profession he had chosen. She considered it very dangerous and bad for his health but remained supportive. On his first mission, Mission Control in Houston had put all the ISS crew members in contact with their families. They were asking the standard questions…how are the children etc. The first thing that Fyodor asked his wife was “Can I do this again?” Larisa immediately replied with an emphatic “Yes”.

Three months later the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster occurred. Fyodor had trained with these astronauts and knew them quite well. He often gets asked if that made him reconsider going back to space. Fyodor’s reply is “You’re driving a car and witness an accident but you continue driving. We all know that space is a dangerous business but it is our chosen profession”.

Space has become a fatal attraction for Fyodor. When he’s out there and sees our planet Earth from a distance, it’s such a moving experience. What does the future hold for Baikonur? In the next few years Baikonur will continue to remain extremely busy with a considerable backlog of business on its books. However it is uncertain whether this momentum will continue long-term. Recently Russian Soyuz rockets have been launched from Kourou in French Guiana which is operated by ESA (European Space Agency). The Guiana location has the significant benefit of greatly increased payload capability, owing to its proximity to the equator. A Soyuz rocket with a 1.7 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit performance from Baikonur, will increase its payload potential to 2.8 tonnes from the Guiana launch site.

More significantly in its attempts to reduce its dependency on Baikonur and to neutralise sometimes tense relations with Kazakhstan, Russia began construction of a replacement spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, in 2011. Located in Russia’s Far East and in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, it is expected to be completed by 2018. Eventually most of the Baikonur launches will be transferred to Vostochny. Irrespective of what the future holds for Baikonur Cosmodrome, no one can deny its historic and pioneering role. It’s been the backbone of the Soviet and now Russian Space Program for decades and has done the bulk of the heavy lifting in keeping the ISS program operational. Its legacy is enshrined in the humanity’s quest to understand space’s frontiers.

*Nick Dallas visited Kazakhstan in 2007. He would like to thank FILIA, the Kazakh-Kyrgyz Greek Friendship Association for use of some of the photos