Once one of the most secret 5,000 square miles in the world, Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Space Complex is now actively seeking more visitors. The oldest and now most active space port in the world has been open, to some extent, to the public for some time now, but not many foreign tourists have made the trek to the small city in Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda oblast. Now, with a $1 million investment from Kazakh company Diamond Technology, the country is hoping to draw crowds to a new “Space Harbor” being built in Baikonur, a visitor’s complex with a platform for visitors to watch launches from and other tourist infrastructure.
A Cold War Boom
Baikonur was born as a top secret space center: a great Soviet head start in its race against the U.S. for technological supremacy. In those early days of the Cold War, it took two years for the U.S. to discover the massive space center on the steppe, which was first captured by a U2 spy plane in 1957.
By then, the Soviets were well on their way to the stars. Baikonur was the site of many firsts in the space race: it launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to reach orbit, in 1957; Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth, began his pioneering trip there in 1961, as did Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to reach space, in 1963. In 1965, Alexei Leonov took off from Baikonur to become the first person to take a spacewalk.
The town was built around the expanding space center, and grew to include apartments, kindergartens, schools, markets and all the other infrastructure of a small city—and indeed, was named “Star City” for a time. As the Cold War rolled on without losing steam, the town and the center grew, reaching nearly 100,000 people in its mid-1980s heyday.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the town of Baikonur has been on something of a long decline. Once a mini-Russian city in Kazakh territory, the town is now mostly Kazakh. Russia rents the Baikonur Cosmodrome for $115 million a year through a lease that runs through 2050. It puts about $27.6 million from its federal budget into the town every year, according to Astrowatch.net. Despite this, however, even President Vladimir Putin of Russia once called Baikonur “physically aged.” Industry and development is still catching up after the early 1990s collapse all of Kazakhstan faced, and with little industry outside the space center, it’s still foreign engineers who tend to have the best jobs.
A Space Life Line
The space center, at least, is bustling. Dozens of launches occur each year, and only about half of 2013’s scheduled launches were Russian. The U.S., Canada, Japan and the EU all use Baikonur to launch their manned space flights, as it’s one of the few places on Earth to do so. A three-man team of one American and two Russians landed in Kazakhstan in March 2014 after nearly six months in the International Space Station. They launched from Baikonur on Sept. 25, 2013, in a Soyuz spacecraft.
Now, however, Russia, is in the process of building a new space complex on its own territory, in Vostochny, which is contributing to some tension about Baikonur’s future. The two countries don’t always see eye to eye on managing their shared resource, and Russia has recently threatened to simply pull out of the port in 2018, when its new space complex is ready. Now, representatives on both sides say this won’t happen.
“Neither I nor any sane person in Kazakhstan wants Russia to leave Baikonur. We are partners and allies and at this level of international cooperation it’s normal to have joint strategic projects,” Talgat Mussabaev, chairman of Kazcosmos, the Kazakh Space Agency, said in an interview published on Jan. 9 by the Izvestia newspaper.
Russia has no plans to abandon Baikonur, First Deputy Director General Vladimir Nesterov of Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, a Moscow-based producer of spacecraft, said in an interview with radio channel Ekho Moskvy. The new launch site at Vostochny will simply offer Russia more freedom to do different things, he said. The two countries recently signed a three year roadmap for joint use of the Baikonur site.
Still, diversifying the uses of Baikonur Cosmodrome would seem to be a wise choice—just in case.
While Kazakhstan continues expanding its role in Baikonur Cosmodrome—it’s building its own Baiterek launch pad, which it says will be more environmentally friendly than existing ones—and plans to launch a record three spacecraft of its own this year—it’s also focusing on the potential of the town. Tourism is something Kazakhstan wants more of, and with the global economy settling down, the country is starting to invest in attracting visitors.
The Tourism Industry Committee of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Industry and New Technologies recently drafted a concept for developing tourism around the nation, based on five regional tourism clusters. Baikonur, along with the Silk Road towns of Otrar and Turkestan, among others, is included in the South Kazakhstan cluster.
There are some tours available at Baikonur now, to be sure. A three-day package contains a visit to the launch complex Gagarin took off from, huts where he and other significant figures lived, and a visit to the current Cosmonautics Museum. Visits to Proton and Soyuz missile launch pads and the Proton assembly plant can also be arranged. Applications must be submitted about two months in advance and the tours cost $3,000-$3,500 each. They’re only scheduled sporadically.
But the town and the space complex have a wealth of historical sites and objects to visit. Yuri Gagarin’s house and the bed he slept in before his historic launch are open to visitors. (When asked how he could sleep before such an event, Gagarin apparently responded “Would it be right to take off if I were not rested? It was my duty to sleep, so I slept.”) The town is full of public art celebrating spaceflight and cosmonaut heroes in paintings and statues; full-sized, restored rockets are on display. The Cosmonaut Hotel features doorways signed by astronauts before takeoff. Space junkies won’t lack for space junk to see.
Seeing Stars—and Star Chasers
And seeing is the focus of the new tourism venture. The focal point for Baikonur’s new Space Harbor is a huge, transparent dome through which visitors can watch the stars, the sky, and rocket launches. Hotels, a planetarium, a space museum, a cinema, a flight control display center, restaurants and more are part of the larger scheme.
The Diamond Technology website says an area of 1.2 hectares is under construction now and is planned to increase to 2.5 hectares. In the future, it is hoped, Space Harbor will grow to 100 hectares and include, among other amenities, a water park and a bowling alley. “Hopefully, crossing the threshold of the cosmic harbor will be like actually leaving the Earth’s surface and arriving at another man-made planet: Planet Space Harbor,” the website reads.
Diamond Technology and its Space Harbor project have received support from Kazakh government agencies developing tourism, and the Russians have agreed to the plan.
“The Russian side expressed readiness to develop cooperation in the area of tourism. The Baikonur administration said it was ready to develop tour itineraries to the space pad and is looking at the possibility of organizing a viewing point,” said Marat Igaliyev, chairman of Kazakhstan’s Committee of Tourism Industry within the Ministry of Industry and New Technologies, after meeting with Oleg Ostapenko, head of Federal Space Agency of Russian Federation, Roscosmos, on Dec. 26, 2013.
Yevgeny Samotoi, director of the town’s Baikonur Hotel, told Edge Magazine, “Yes I have heard [about the new complex] that will be built outside the city.” However, the hotel he runs works only with Roskosmos (Russia’s space agency) and an increase in other tourists wouldn’t affect his business much. “But in any case the city would prosper,” he said.
A Long-Awaited Project
Getting tourists to Baikonur has been a dream of the country’s for some time. Back in 2009, President Nazarbayev himself, addressing the 18th session of the General Assembly of the UN’s World Tourism Organization, said he wanted to promote the development of space tourism. “We are paying attention to (developing) space tourism,” he said. “Currently, there are three dozen launch sites in the world, but the Baikonur space launch site is of particular importance. I believe it will be promising to organize visiting spacecraft launches from the Baikonur space center and to arrange visits to this great space harbor by tourists from different countries of the world.”
Even space tourism has been suggested as a possibility for Baikonur’s future. French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré recently told Nazarbayev University students that he expected commercial, civilian spacecraft to be operational by 2020 and that Kazakhstan could be a center for global space tourism.
With Astana set to host the international exhibition EXPO 2017, the capital is getting ready for unprecedented numbers of foreign travelers. The country is also applying for World Heritage status for a number of its ancient Silk Road sites. Baikonur, it’s hoped, will become another destination for visitors to the country’s south, as well as a site of pilgrimage for space history buffs.