Baikonur Cosmodrome | On the Cosmic Regions of the Former Soviet Union*

The Baikonur Cosmodrome, also called Tyuratam, is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. It is located in the desert steppes of Kazakhstan, about 200 kilometers [124 mi] east of the Aral Sea, and is managed jointly by the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Russian Space Forces. In the mid-1950s, the Soviet military had to find a new test site for its secret rocket program. At the time, cruise and ballistic missiles conceived in the country promised to fly not hundreds but thousands of kilometers. Such range would not fit into existing corridors extending from Kapustin Yar on the Volga River to the steppes of Kazakhstan. After considering the four most desolate locations it could find, the government commission made a choice: the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

When it seems that we have reached the end of and era with the Space Shuttle program just finished, and Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off July 8 on the final flight of the program, we also want to reference here the on-going Unknown Fields Division travelling studio, which is, as they say, an “epic journey into the atomic and cosmic regions of the former Soviet Union” and is based on a research through landscapes of obsolete futures, from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, through the Ukraine and the oil fields of Azerbaijan to finally arrive to the rocket launch pad of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Launch pad in Baikonur

Launch pad with the Buran space shuttle

We can read at the wiki:

The shape of the area leased is an ellipse, measuring 90 kilometres east-west by 85 kilometres north-south, with the cosmodrome at the centre. It was originally built by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s as the base of operations for its ambitious space program. Under the current Russian space program, Baikonur remains a busy space port, with numerous commercial, military and scientific missions being launched annually.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Russian space program continued to operate from Baikonur under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States. On June 8, 2005 the Russian Federation Council ratified an agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan extending Russia’s rent term of the spaceport until 2050. That dispute has prompted Russia to begin upgrading its own Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk Oblast of Northern Russia as a fallback option.

Energia Buran launch facility

Energia Buran launch facility

The Baikonur Cosmodrome was used for the launch of the Buran-Energia, that is Russia’s answer to the American space shuttle program. Envisioned before the American shuttle, yet only built some years after Columbia blasted off into space, the Buran-Energia project was one of the largest, most ambitious and expensive space programs ever attempted in history.

The Buran-Energia is composed of the the Buran shuttle, the Energia core booster and the Zenith strap on boosters, all designed to be fully reusable. The facility had remained abandoned in the first half of the 1990s, until Khrunichev enterprise did not start commercial launches of the Proton rockets from near by launch pads on the left flank of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, as we can read at the Russian Space Web.

It’s now interesting to think on how this “ecologically fragile and the technologically obsolete” infrastructures can be reused or if this old facilities are able to become a new kind of city and not simply one more technological graveyard.

Energia Buran launch facility

Buran space shuttle

About its current state, we found out this note:

In mid-2006, head of Roskosmos Anatoly Perminov said that last Russian military personnel would leave Baikonur for Plesetsk by the end of 2007. In reality, the process was much slower and much more painful for rank-and-file members of the military, who often faced numerous problems when repatriating from Kazakhstan to Russia, especially in obtaining housing. Nevertheless, on April 30, 2008, in one of his last moves as president, Vladimir Putin signed a decree disbanding GIK-5. As of Jan. 1, 2009, the only military installations remaining in Baikonur would be an air squadron based at the Krainy airfield and a directorate responsible for R-36M UTTKh and UR-100NU missiles. In mid-2008, Russian space officials said that between 2005 and 2008, the total of 30 military units with 2,000 members of military personnel had been disbanded, as the center’s facilities were transferred to the Russian space agency, Roskosmos. In turn, Roskosmos, announced a formation of a directorate responsible for running Baikonur. At the beginning of December 2008, Russian military was destroying classified hardware and absolete pirotechnic equipment, Interfax news agency reported.

We’re curious to see what Liam Young, Kate Davies, and the Architectural Association’s students find now out there, on the “cosmic” part of their trip.

Baikonur area. Google Earth image.

Mobile Service Tower

* “On the Cosmic Regions of the Former Soviet Union” Name taken fron the Unknown Fields Division travelling studio.

Some time ago Simon Sellars aka @ballardian has shared a reference about some of these striking images. And don’t miss English Russia’s wonderful images from the Buran Space Shuttle, here.

You can follow the live blog of Unknown Fields Division’s Chernobyl to Baikonur trip from their collaborator @super_collider at Tumblr.


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