From the Earth to the stars, the best way to get there is through Kazakhstan
When someone mentions the word “space” people tend to think of Cape Canaveral, the Space Shuttle, the moon landing, Apollo, NASA, and even Russia comes into mind. Nobody thinks Kazakhstan has a role in space flight but the reality is Kazakhstan is where space travel started.
The Baikonour Cosmodrome located outside the small town of Tyuratam (Toretam) in southern Kazakstan is where space flight began and is still continuing today. It is the first and largest space launch site in the world and holds historical significance. It’s where in 1957, Sputnik was launched into space becoming the first man-made satellite and then in 1961 launched the first person into space Yuri Gagarin. 2 years later Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space and was launched from Baikonour.
Today, Baikonour is still being used as a launch site for space missions. With the ending of the Space Shuttle program in the United States, the Baikonour Cosmodrome is the sole launch site in the world for space mission to the International Space Station (ISS). On May 14th 2012, the second half of the crew of Expedition 31 was launched from Baikonour to ISS carrying a crew of three including an American astronaut: Flight Engineer Joe Acaba who was part of the STS-119 crew. He will join his fellow astronaut Flight Engineer Don Pettit who is already on-board ISS that was launched back in April.
Also, the Cosmodrome has a huge significance to the 21st century: telecommunications. That’s right, the Cosmodrome launches commercial satellites as well so the satellites that give you DirectTV, Skype, and even the Internet are launched from there. For example, Sirius/XM Satellite Radio will be launching a satellite possibly around June (due to delays) from Baikonour.
The launch site is open to tourists and does have a small museum that has many exhibits. One of the exhibits include the cottages of Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev, the chief engineer of the Soviet space program and father of space flight. The cottages have been preserved and include some artifacts that were instrumental to the spaceflight. Outside are old rockets including the Soyuz rockets and the Buran-Energia OK-M (that looks almost exactly like the NASA space shuttle) which was a test shuttle. The “Buran” as it’s called is also interactive where visitors can go inside and interact with the exhibits. Inside the museum are models and artifacts like spacesuits, capsules, thrusters, original computers, and autographs of all the cosmonauts from around the globe who were launched from the Cosmodrome. Even the hatch from when the Space Shuttle docked with the MIR space station is on display. And if you’re wondering if you can watch an actual launch at Baikonour, the answer is yes.
Making use of its hosting one of the most established launch facilities in the world, Kazakhstan aspires to develop its own space program designed to make modern IT, communication and satellite technologies more accessible for its fast growing economy and population, especially talented youth. With this aim in mind, the National Space Agency of Kazakhstan (KazCosmos) launches satellites, develops infrastructure and builds capacity by training its space experts at best higher educational institutions home and overseas.
Kazakhstan is the first country in Eurasia after Russia to launch its communication satellites — KazSat 1 and KazSat 2. The first one was launched in June 2006 (its control was lost two years later). The second one was launched in July 2011 and serves for TV and data transmissions for Kazakhstan. In the pipeline is also KazSat 3, which will also be launched to contribute to the development of communications in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s own new modern launch facility at Baikonur entitled “Baiterek” is being developed now in cooperation with Russia and other international partners and will also be used to make commercial launches for other countries. KazCosmos headed by the veteran Kazakh cosmonaut Talgat Mussabayev pursues international cooperation with a number of space powers such as Russia, France, India and Italy. Discussions are also on to develop partnership with the NASA.
Even though the launch site is far from any major city, it is one of the most significant and amazing places to see in Kazakhstan that began the space race and manned space flight. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to go visit and possibly see an actual space launch. The Baikonour Cosmodrome is certainly a destination to visit and demonstrating Kazakstan’s journey to the final frontier of space. We wish the Expedition 31 crew best of luck and safe travels.
Thanks for exploring,
The Wonderful World of Kazakhstan