I found this 2001 Air & Space article during my research about Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It’s a very good first person account of a visit out to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and some of the run-ups and rituals for launching from there. The writer was there for a launch of the first permanent International Space Station crew (which occurred in November 2000). It’s a neat article, because I love reading about some of the traditions established by the Russians that started with Sputnik-1’s launch. The story is four pages long, so if you have time, give it a read.
Probably like most space nerds, I’ve known about Baikonur for a long time. It’s a big Russian rocket launch complex. It’s also known by another, perhaps less well-known name: Tyuratam (or Tyura Tam). Either way, the Cosmodrome has a place in space history, as well as missile development history. Like Peenemuende in Germany (some history about that here), it is the site that launched a few space history “firsts.” Probably the most well-known is the launch of Sputnik-1 into space on October 4, 1957 from Baikonur’s “site 1.” Sputnik-1 wasn’t very big, just 23 inches (58 centimeters) in diameter and weighing around 184 pounds (over 83 kilograms).
Almost exactly a month later, Laika the dog was launched in Sputnik-2. Laika, unfortunately, didn’t last long, but the satellite the poor dog was ensconced in was massive when compared to Sputnik-1, weighing in at over 1,120 pounds (about 508 kilograms). Both Sputniks were launched on top of a modified R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)–which was a first as well. The R-7, like the traditions at Baikonur, became well-used. It became a heavily modified rocket design used in space launches even now.
Yuri Gagarin was launched from Baikonur. He was “only” the first man in space. Launched into space on April 12, 1961, we still commemorate that event now with “Yuri’s Night” every year in April. By the way, the organization I work with will be hosting a Yuri’s Night this year (2015). We’re going to have astronauts and others hosting the event, and it will be in our little, but fantastic, museum–the Discovery Center. If you wish to attend, you’ll have to pay, though. If you are close by and wish to attend, just go here.
But back to Baikonur. It is the biggest launch complex in the world. It’s probably also the oldest. The Soviets used to own it, building it in the middle of nowhere (for the most part) so their missile tests wouldn’t inadvertently hurt populated areas. Another consideration for it’s placement in Kazakhstan was to keep Soviet activities away from spying US eyes (although it was photographed by a U-2 within the same year the Soviets started testing ICBMs in 1957). It was a part of the Soviet Union, but now is leased for use by the Russian government from Kazakhstan.
Baikonur is the ONLY place right now that launches humans to the International Space Station. Which makes it the ONLY place that gives humans a physical toehold in space exploration and activities. China might also eventually start placing Taikonauts in their own space station, but until Americans once again have a crew-rated space launch vehicle, the Russians, and Baikonur in particular, are both playing important and historic roles for human space launch.