The odds were against it when the remote, super-secret site in Central Asia was chosen as the space nerve center for the Soviet Union back in June 1955 by legendary Soviet Chief Rocket Designer Sergei Korolëv. Even then, the American space program looked to be vastly superior in resources and access to the most up-to-date technology.
Physically, not that much has changed since Korolëv's death in 1966. The tiny shack where he lived modestly, amid the sand-swept, barren steppe, remains lovingly preserved. But Korolëv would be amazed to see the American, European and even Saudi Arabian scientists and business executives who now flood his cosmodrome eager to watch its fabled old hardware lift their high-tech wonders into Earth orbit with a greater frequency and a greater reliability record than any other space center in the world.
After founding Baikonur, Korolëv beat the United States into space with one spectacular achievement after another over the following decade: the first orbiting Earth satellite, Sputnik One, in October 1957; the first live animal in space; the first human being to orbit, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961; Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and Alexei Leonov, the first human being to walk in space. All blasted off from Baikonur.
Korolëv might even have beaten U.S. astronauts around the moon with his Luna rocket program. But he died in 1966, at the early age of 59, of heart disease brought on by overwork and the frustrations of dealing with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, who lacked the visionary commitment to the space program of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev.
The next decade was difficult for Baikonur. The Soviet space program languished as the U.S. space program forged ahead with its Gemini and Apollo missions. Six teams of American astronauts eventually walked on the moon -- beginning with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 35 years ago this month, on July 20, 1969 -- and every one of them came safely home again. The United States also pioneered the age of long-duration space stations with its Skylab project.
In the 1980s, however, even as America warmed to the regular space spectaculars of its shuttle program, the Soviet scientists and engineers at Baikonur quietly took the lead in manned space exploration again. No shuttle flight ever lasted longer than a couple of weeks, and for all the hoopla, the scientific yield from their experiments was usually negligible.
Using small and rickety, yet over the long term amazingly safe and reliable space stations, Soviet and later Russian cosmonauts from Baikonur spent a year or more at a time in space supported by only a fraction of the U.S. space program's resources. They logged a still-incomparable mass of biological data on how the human body responds to long periods of weightlessness and exposure to the other extreme conditions of space travel. All of this provided essential preparation for any future, long-duration human missions to other worlds in the solar system or even beyond.
At the very time America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration was dominated by late astronomer Carl Sagan's fierce opposition to ambitious manned space flight, the scientists of Baikonur remained true to Korolëv's vision that manned exploration of space was the destiny of the human race.
Then, the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 seemed to deal another deathblow to Baikonur.
"Baikonur, you must understand, was a creation of the Soviet Union," Nurgalev Meirgalyevich Ergazi, special envoy of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, told UPI. "It couldn't have existed without it. It wasn't expected to survive after it."
In December 1994, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Nazarbayev signed a visionary -- though later highly controversial -- agreement to ensure the survival of Baikonur. Under it, Kazakhstan agreed to lease the vast complex of almost 1,700 square kilometers (about 660 square miles), whose capitalization has recently been estimated at $23 billion to Russia for a rent of $115 million a year.
That rent is now the subject of intense debate between Russia and Kazakhstan, its fellow former Soviet republic. The Russian government of President Vladimir Putin insists the rent is far too high. The government of Kazakhstan insists it is far too low.
They argue because, against all expectations, Baikonur has thrived anew. Russia's Federal Space Agency is now in hot demand to provide its booster rockets, the largest and most reliable fleet of such missiles in the world, to deliver communications and other satellites into orbit.
The FSA is now adding its new Dnepr booster -- adapted from the terrifying RS-20 intercontinental ballistic missile, known to NATO planners as the SS-18 Satan -- to its old, well-tested stable of Proton and Soyuz rockets.
The huge payload volume capacity of the Dnepr, inherited from the need for the old SS-18 to carry up to 10 Multiple-Targeted Reentry Vehicles with thermonuclear warheads to obliterate Western cities, is now a Godsend to Western businessmen because it can carry so many satellites into orbit at the same time. Tuesday's launch successfully sent up eight of them: three American, three Saudi Arabian, one French and one Italian.
It is a supreme irony, and one the idealistic Korolëv would have relished, that the cosmodrome he was forced to establish amid a suffocating blanket of total Cold War secrecy should now flourish by selling its expertise to the whole world.
It also provides an eerie fulfillment of a prophecy made more than a millennium ago by the renowned 7th century Central Asian philosopher-poet, Korkyt-Ata, who is buried only 40 miles away on the endlessly rolling steppe. He proclaimed, "Remember, the navel of the human race is here in Baikonur."
To which Ergazi commented: "Thirteen centuries later, Korolev chose this place, and made these words come true."
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