On June 2, 1955, pursuant to a decree of the General Staff of the USSR Defense Ministry the organizational and staff structure of the Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 (NIIP-5) was endorsed. This day became the date of foundation of the legendary cosmodrome and the city of Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
In February 1990, my first reporting trip to Baikonur took place. Together with other reporters, I accompanied Soviet astronaut Anatoly Solovyov before his flight to the Mir space station. For me, the journey to the star harbor of our planet was like a space trip. I got a chance to get acquainted with the glorious pages of the country's history.
An unremarkable gazebo where Sergei Korolev decided who would be the first person to fly into space – Yuri Gagarin or Herman Titov.
A small house and a modest bedroom, where Yuri Gagarin spent the night before lifting off to the near-earth orbit. The famous poplar alley of space pioneers. Personal signatures of crew members on the doors of their hotel rooms. The most important thing was to see the launch site, where an artificial earth satellite was launched for the first time and the first manned mission into space started. It was from this site that the Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz spacecraft, the Salyut and Mir space stations, and interplanetary space probes were launched.
Today, any of us can visit Baikonur without leaving home. Numerous websites give you the opportunity to walk through the territory of the famous cosmodrome, to see any corner of the Baikonur compound, and to visit the local museum.
However, no virtual image can replace the impression of a real launch of a spacecraft. When the commands “Key to start,” “Engine firing” and “Rise” are announced over the public address system at the spaceport, the excitement takes your breath away. A moment later, a giant silver “cigar,” as if reluctantly, rises up into the sky through the clouds.
Even after I started working as a reporter at Baikonur on a regular basis, it took me some time to learn the territorial and administrative structure of the city and the cosmodrome. Baikonur has two airports, Krayniy and Yubileyny. The railway station is called Tyuratam. The city was formerly known as Leninsk. Additionally, there was also a postal address “Moscow-400, unit identification code #…”
In Soviet times, they really knew how to create and keep secrets. Baikonur is a vivid confirmation of this. Even today, not everyone knows the history of the country's spaceport. In Kazakhstan, there is a village of Boykonyr in Kazakh or Baikonur in Russian on the northern spurs of the Alatau ridge. In the early 1950s, construction materials were brought there and models of the launch devices of the missile range were built. In order to keep the secret, the false “cosmodrome” was really guarded until the beginning of 1970s. From the first days of construction, the real Baikonur got the code name Taiga. While the landfill near the Tyuratam railway station was built, the construction of a residential settlement for testers began. In order to completely confuse foreign intelligence services, the landfill and the village got another name Zarya. Official reports about space launches called the launch site of the missiles Baikonur. Gradually, this name became associated with the real spaceport. In 1995, the administrative center of the Leninsk cosmodrome was renamed into Baikonur.
The choice of the spaceport’s location was not accidental. It is located far away from big roads and from the state border. This is one of the most favorable climatic areas for rocket launches. There are over 300 sunny days per year, very low annual precipitation, low humidity and short winter. Several options were considered for the location of the launch site such as the Far East, the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the Middle Volga area, Dagestan, the Astrakhan region and the Kzyl-Orda region of Kazakhstan. The latter option ensured the convenient location of the posts for ground control of the carrier vehicle flights. Sergei Korolev, the USSR’s chief space rocket designer, also chose Kazakhstan. A relatively short distance between the launch site and the equator made it possible to effectively use the Earth's rotation speed during spacecraft launches.
By the end of 1956, the world's first cosmodrome was built in the uninhabited swath of the Kazakh desert. Today, Baikonur hosts up to 80% of the Russian Federation's launch programmes. From here, launch systems with spacecraft for scientific and socio-economic purposes, interplanetary probes, and cargo craft under the International Space Station program are launched.
At present, Baikonur is experiencing resurgence, becoming a large-scale platform for international cooperation. In cooperation with Kazakhstan, the new Baiterek rocket and space complex is being built at Baikonur. The modernization of the world-famous Gagarin's Start, also known as Baikonur Site 1 or Site 1/5, a launch site for modern carrier vehicle is another major project.
In the Kazakh language, Baikonur means “a rich valley.” No doubt that this valley is rich primarily in real heroes. I mean builders, engineers, astronauts and military personnel, namely, people who have been making our space history for 65 years.