The name resonates with historical significance and modern adventure like few others. Baikonur is the oldest and largest "space port" on the planet – this is where the Soviet Union
's space exploration had its home base; and even in post-Soviet times, now in independent Kazakhstan
, but leased to Russia
, it remains the world's busiest and most significant rocket launching site, even ahead of Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA
The "Cosmodrome" of Baikonur is the place where Yuri Gagarin lifted off to become the first man in space. That followed the first launch of a satellite, the legendary Sputnik, and other firsts included the first living creatures sent to space (namely Laika the dog) before Gagarin and other men, and later also the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, took off from Baikonur.
Ever since the various launch pads of the complex have been used for most of the formerly Soviet and subsequently Russian space missions. Today it's even an international "space port". It lies in the middle of the steppe in Kazakhstan
, not far (by Kazakh standards) to the east of the Aral Sea
Though now on independent Kazakhstan
's territory, it's still on lease to the Russians and effectively a Russian
colony and restricted military area. Therefore visits aren't straightforward, but they are possible with sufficient advance planning. Some specialist tour operators offer help in arranging the required special permits – for a price (from ca. 1000 USD for a two-day visit). You can even arrange visits to watch actual launches – with even more forward planning – and for some real serious money. (And if you have several millions spare, and are of the required fitness, you could even become a "space tourist" – so far, however, there's only ever been two.)
But why should it be something for the dark tourist? Well, space travel and rocket launching also had (and potentially always has) its dark sides. Serious accidents have happened. And Baikonur is no exception. So visits to the huge complex may include memorial sites too, e.g. that of the "Nedelin disaster" – possibly the worst of them all, when an R16 ICBM
exploded on the test launch pad killing between 90 and 200 people, including the commander of the R16 development team, Chief Marshal Nedelin.
You'll definitely see the complex's museum, Gagarin's and Korolev's houses. Tthe latter, if you don't know, was the "Chief Designer" of the Soviet space programme – the Russian equivalent of Wernher von Braun (see Peenemünde
). And of course some of the facilities such as assembly plants, cosmonaut training facilities, and a launch pad or two.
Another dark aspect of the site is that it didn't only serve purely "civilian" space travel purposes (if ever there was such a thing) but was also the place where the Soviet ICBM programme was largely conducted and tested and where several ICBM
launch facilities were located (now gone, since Kazakhstan relinquished the nuclear weapons it had "inherited" from the Soviet era). You probably won't see or hear much about this, but still, knowing the significance of the place during the Cold War
makes for an extra element in the dark atmosphere of the site …
A visit to Baikonur would most naturally combine with a visit to the Aral Sea
, but can also be done independently, either from Astana
– or even from Russia
(e.g. with rusadventures.com or atlasaerospace.net).
Personally, Baikonur for me is potentially one of the coolest places the world has to offer – but it turned out to be one of my greatest traumas in my recent travel history. I had planned a visit for almost a whole year, i.e. well in time. It was scheduled to include the observation of a Soyuz rocket launch, namely that of an unmanned cargo supply ship for the International Space Station (ISS), a mission code-named "Progress M-12M". The launch date remained fixed until just two weeks before my departure when I was informed that it had been rescheduled by the Russian space agency. Normally that means postponement, but in this case the launch was brought forward by a week. This made it even more painful for me to miss it, as I would actually already be in the country, within a day's travel reach of Baikonur, but unable to go and see the launch because the dates on the permit for my Baikonur visit could not be changed at such short notice.
Clearly, this was a great disappointment, but at least I would still get to see all those cool facilities and historically momentous places. But things went from bad to worse. Only two days before my transfer to Baikonur I was informed (by a brief text message) that the whole trip had to be cancelled. I was in Aralsk
at the time, which is not a place where you want to be stranded, believe me. At least I managed to get out by train and back to Almaty through my own initiative and with a good dose of luck (tickets regularly sell out in the summer months) – my tour operator had just left me high and dry …
Why the cancellation: the whole Cosmodrome had been closed to the public and all tours cancelled due to a series of accidents that had happened, most significantly the loss of "Progress M-12M" – yes, the very one I had originally been scheduled to see lift off (before you think of it: no, I did NOT jinx it; it never occurred to me either that the most reliable rocket in history could possibly fail so disastrously on this occasion). The launch from the pad at Baikonur had been the same picture-book perfect affair it had always been for the last 33 years (with well over 700 launches that went without a hitch). But the third stage of the rocket failed and its cargo crashed into the Altai mountains in southern Siberia just north of Kazakhstan. This followed a series of other losses, including a hugely expensive satellite that could not reach its orbit and thus ended up an exorbitant piece of space junk.
With the reputation of Baikonur thus so seriously damaged, and amidst allegations of corruption (or even worse), a full-scale investigation was ordered by Russia
's prime minister (Vladmir Putin himself, that is). And that's why Baikonur was closed just at the time I was supposed to go there. Needless to say, I was VERY distraught …
Now, with little need to return to Kazakhstan
for another field trip (I had more or less exhausted the country in dark tourism terms in August 2011), I guess I will at some point have to opt for one of those tours with the Russians, via Moscow (see above). But that would be such a luxurious expense that I could not possibly justify it in the foreseeable future. But maybe one day.
If you want to go to Baikonur overland or as part of a longer trip to Kazakhstan
, then I recommend you use the company Kazakhstan Tours
for this bit. I found them highly competent when I had my trip to the Aralsk
organized by them and I know they do tours to Baikonur too – see their sponsored page here