The legendary Gagarin Launch Complex at the famed Baikonur Comsmodrome does not really look like much. Many of the historical artifacts from the 1960s Apollo Moon Missions at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, look much grander.
There is one big difference, however: at Gagarin Complex, they still are in the business of launching crewed spaceships.
They have launched 424 so far, and send Soyuz and Proton rockets carrying Progress supply ships and teams of cosmonauts -- including U.S. astronauts -- to the International Space Station.
Indeed, with the remaining three ships of the U.S. space shuttle fleet still grounded indefinitely since the catastrophic loss of the Columbia upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, and with no U.S. boosters planned for manned missions in the near future, the Gagarin team is now America's only link with stars as well.
It is a record of longevity, cost-effectiveness and reliability without equal in the history of manned space flight. It was begun in the face of the Soviet communist bureaucracy, which, after 1965 was largely apathetic and provided a minimum of resources in the face of fierce global economic competition.
How do they do it? Alexei Ivanovich Vasiliev is one of the reasons. He is deputy director of construction at the General Production Bureau at Baikonur, operating under Russia's Federal Space Agency. He is, effectively, the senior flight engineer running Gagarin, and he has been working there for 37 of its 43 years.
At Cape Canaveral -- or probably anywhere else at NASA or its big corporate contractors' facilities -- it is probable the lean, sun-tanned, friendly and outgoing Vasiliev could not even get a job. For one thing, he is too old at age 68. For another, he does not have a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or anywhere else for that matter. He is not even a whiz on hi-tech software systems. There still are not that many of them on the engineering side at Baikonur.
Nevertheless, Vasiliev is worth his weight in gold to Russia's surprisingly robust and profitable space program, and the vast experience and technical knowledge he brings to its everyday operations is beyond calculation.
The Gagarin Complex, of course, is named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to be launched into space with his 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961 -- from this site.
The complex reflects the great, robust and practical traditions of Russian heavy engineering. Although the Central Asian steppes of Kazakhstan can experience temperature variations of 150 degrees Fahrenheit from the baking 140-degree heat of summer to the deep snow blizzards and howling winds down to minus 10 degrees F of mid-winter, the Baikonur launching systems are designed to resist all that.
The launching mechanisms on the pad all are retractable deep into the ground, and the rockets are transported by horizontal rail links to their launching points at the last possible moment. Indeed, the new generation of satellite launch boosters -- like the highly reliable Dnepr rocket, adapted from the old Soviet SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile -- is launched entirely from underground silos.
Gagarin complex, Vasiliev points out, was quickly superseded by later designs. Like all good engineers, the ones at Baikonur never stop learning from their own equipment and are always incrementally modifying it.
The launch pad, Vasiliev pointed out, is still highly labor intensive. It takes up to 350 engineers and industrial workers to operate it. Later designs require far smaller work teams. Despite its mass -- the entire launch pad mechanism weighs 600 tons -- it can rotate 360 degrees.
Also, the pad goes down deep. Very deep.
"This the deepest launch complex in the world," Vasiliev said. "It goes down more than 43 meters (around 130 feet). That is because it was the first launching pad of its kind in the world to be designed for the launching of heavy rockets. But when we had more experience, we realized we didn't need to put our launching mechanisms so deep."
At any American space center, the Gagarin complex would have been scrapped decades ago to make way for new, bright, shiny -- and expensive -- launching pads. But even though the Russian engineers at Baikonur have not hesitated to create new, state-of-the-art launching silos whenever they need them -- as they have for the Dnepr program -- they continue to achieve cost effectiveness out of their tough, tested and wonderfully reliable old operating systems.
"The projected age of any of our launching systems is estimated at 10 years from construction, then another 5 years after a first refit and overhaul, then finally for another 2 1/2 years after a second overhaul," Vasiliev said. But the Gagarin complex has not been refitted in more than 20 years. The last repair was in 1983.
"In Russia, we get used to stretching out the operational life of our equipment, and it still works perfectly," the old engineer said. "Today, 80 percent of all the manned launches of our Russian program are still carried out from here. We send up your American guys, too."