Rocket blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome

Engineering places: Baikonur

Image credit: Dreamstime

In celebration of IET@150 we look at feats of engineering from around the world... and, this issue, from out of this world.

In the middle of the vast Kazakh steppe stands what is simultaneously one of the world’s most famous and least-known engineering sites – the Baikonur Cosmodrome – and that peculiar history has much to do with its origins.

By 1954, the Soviet Union needed a new missile test facility that had to be secret, secure and offer the vast distances needed to test these weapons, a long way from the prying eyes of American U2 pilots.

The site they chose was a huge plain in the Kzyl Orda region of Kazakhstan, over a thousand miles from the nearest national border, with low rainfall and an average of over 300 fine days of weather a year. Being relatively far south, it offered rockets the additional boost of a higher rotational velocity of the Earth at that latitude and, in case of accidents, there was very little else there.

One thing it was not was anywhere near was Baikonur, a mining village over 200 miles away, whose name was borrowed as a decoy. The Soviet pioneer corps first broke ground at Baikonur on 12 January 1955 and work progressed quickly. In just three months over a million cubic metres of earth were moved. As well as the site itself, the engineers were to build a new ‘closed’ city, finally christened Leninsk, where staff of Baikonur and their families would live. The city and site were handed over to the Soviet state in April 1957, and on 15 May the first R7 was launched. The whole process had taken just two years.

Yet while it was primarily built for missile tests, by the late 1950s there was another need for the site – the space race. Unlike the Americans, the Soviets liked to deal with tragedies that inevitably follow any space programme in private, and Baikonur was perfect for that. Americans might witness failures, but as far as Moscow was concerned, the stories to come out of Baikonur would only be triumphs.

Many of them were. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the world by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, from Launch Site No 1. Less than a month later, they followed up with the first living creature in space, Laika the dog, before the US had even managed to lift its first satellite.

With the extraordinary worldwide publicity these feats brought, Baikonur received heavy investment. Four years later, it was ready to make more headlines when, on 12 April, the Vostok propelled Yuri Gagarin into space.

The pace of ‘firsts’ was to be relentless as the Cold War started to heat up. In June 1963, Baikonur put the first woman in orbit, Valentina Tereshkova, and less than two years later, Alexei Leonov flew from there for the first ever spacewalk. Unmanned probes also made the headlines. Luna 9 became the first man-made machine to make a soft touchdown on the Moon and just a year later, a Soviet probe reached Venus.

The failures at Baikonur were less well publicised. In October 1960, an R16 missile exploded on launch killing 165 people and the first manned Soyuz craft provided another grim first when Vladimir Komarov became the first human in-flight space fatality thanks to a failed re-entry parachute.

By now, the US was well on the way to putting a human on the Moon, but the Soviets had no intention of letting them get there first. They had developed the Moon rocket N1-L3 at a new testing site, proving that facilities at the now sprawling 7,000 square kilometre Baikonur site, whose hangars were marvels of modern engineering, were only matched by the gargantuan facilities at the Kennedy Space Centre. When the N1-L3 was rolled out to the pad in January 1969, it took 2,800 staff 28 days to fuel and prepare the vast rocket. Yet it was to mark a change in fortunes for Baikonur. Both this and the next two N1 launches failed, and by now the Americans were on the Moon.

The 1970s were - in some ways - the heyday of Baikonur, as the Soviet launch rate increased to almost two vehicles a week, but it also saw their space programme playing catch up. Some projects retained their aura. Venera 7 become the first spacecraft to land on another planet and Luna 16 brought back soil samples from the Moon. Salyut 1 also became the world’s first orbital space station in 1971, but it seemed to pale in comparison in the public imagination to the US exploits on the lunar surface. As the number of launches increased so, inevitably, did the accidents. All three Soyuz 11 cosmonauts died when a faulty valve vented their atmosphere into space and six further Soyuz cosmonauts had lucky escapes.

Rocket blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome - inline

Image credit: Dreamstime

By now America was moving on to its Space Shuttle programme and the Soviet Union followed suit. Their Buran shuttle and Energia Launcher, which still lie forlornly in derelict hangars on the site (recently discovered by photographer Jonk for Jonglez), bore an uncanny resemblance to their US counterparts, no doubt due to a degree of espionage, although engineering of the systems was surprisingly different. But again, Baikonur was playing catch-up. By the time the first unmanned Buran shuttle launched in November 1988, there had been 26 Space Shuttle flights and, perhaps more importantly, the Challenger disaster. There were cheaper and less public ways of lofting payloads, and after that one flight the whole, vastly expensive Buran project was mothballed.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to large-scale investment in Baikonur, which returned to launching tried and tested rockets. After the retirement of the last US Shuttle in 2011, it also became – for a time – the US’s only way of getting astronauts into space. Although Launch Site No 1, where Gagarin flew, was finally decommissioned due to lack of funds in September 2019, astronauts and cosmonauts still drive past the little house on the edge of the Cosmodrome where Gagarin spent the night before his epic flight, and Baikonur remains, at least for now, a gateway to the stars.

Timeline: Baikonur Cosmodrome

12 Feb 1955: Soviet government issues decree for Scientific Research Test Range No. 5.

5 May 1955: Foundation stone laid in Leninsk.

Apr 1957: Cosmodrome handed over to Soviet authorities.

5 Aug 1957: Site located by an American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane.

4 Oct 1957: Sputnik I is launched on top of an R-7 missile.

3 Nov 1957: Laika the dog becomes first animal in space.

2 Jan 1959: Luna 1 is first spacecraft close to the Moon.

4 Oct 1959: Luna 3 takes first photos of far side of the Moon.

24 Oct 1960: Prototype R-16 ICBM explodes, killing 165.

12 Apr 1961: Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight is launched on board the spaceship Vostok 1.

16 June 1963: First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, launches on the Vostok 6.

24 Oct 1963: Explosion of SS8 missile (seven deaths).

18 March 1965: Aleksei Leonov completes the first spacewalk.

31 Jan 1966: Luna 9 makes the first soft landing on the Moon.

28 Nov 1966-7 Feb 1967: Failure of first three Soyuz flights.

12 June 1967: Launch of Venera 4: first data on the atmosphere of Venus.

23 Apr 1967: Vladimir Komarov is killed aboard Soyuz 1.

3 July 1969: Attempt to launch N-1: part of the fuel detonates.

17 Aug 1970: Launch of Venera 7 – reaches surface of Venus.

12 Sept 1970: Luna 16 brings a sample of lunar rock home.

19 Apr 1971: Launch of first orbiting space station, Salyut 1.

30 June 1971: All three Soyuz 11 cosmonauts die when their atmosphere is vented to space.

5 Apr 1975: Launch of Soyuz 18A.

15 July 1975: Apollo-Soyuz link-up.

14 Oct 1976: Soyuz 23 and Salyut 5 fail to dock.

23 Sept 1983: Cosmonauts Titov and Strekalov are rescued following a launchpad explosion.

15 Nov 1988: Launch of Soviet space shuttle Buran and its successful automated return.

8 June 2005: Russian Federation Council ratifies an agreement with Kazakhstan, extending Russia’s rent of the site to 2050.

25 Sept 2019: Final launch from Launch Site Number 1.

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