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Inside Baikonur
Part of Oberg Corner Family
James Oberg's account of a visit to the long-secret Baikonur cosmodrome.

by James Oberg
First appeared in OMNI magazine, October 1990, pp. 96-102
Reproduced with permission of the author

The sun had not warmed the snowy ground or my frozen toes. As the orange ball rose up out of the fog before us, its speed and the thunder with it reminded us it was no natural phenomenon. The real sun hung high and cold behind us. The rising fireball in front of us was a manned spaceship. The frigid, rolling white landscape all around was the midwinter Central Asian steppe.

After a lifetime of studying it from afar, I was finally standing on the ground of Baikonur, the super-secret Soviet spaceport, at the launching of a Soyuz TM-9 spacecraft. The piles of photographs, books, and maps I had pored over were springing to life all around me. Everywhere was something familiar -- or even better, something never before seen by Westerners. My colleagues were amused as bounced from window to window in the airplane, bus, and hotel and started off in 3 dozen directions at every stop.

The whole trip had been in doubt until last moments. Bureaucratic "difficulties"-the host agency wanted more money -- weren't settled until we boarded the special charter jet at Vnukovo Airport outside Moscow for our three-hour flight here. We had not actually come to the end-of-the-line mud hut mining town of Baikonur, 300 miles to the northeast. In an attempt to mislead spy plane pilots, Soviet cartographers three decades ago borrowed the name of the distant town of Baikonur for this space center near Tyuratam.

Baikonur was misspelled "Baykonur" when it was taken for the spaceport. Then arriving rocket workers began calling the settlement Zarya, or "Dawn." As it grew it became known as Kosmograd -- Space City. Soon the city was officially named Leninsk. The native Kazakhs had the last laugh, however. Baikonur means "blond chief," but Tyuratam carries with it a hidden curse: It supposedly means "Cemetery of Arrows", an inauspicious name for a rocket center.

During our approach we spotted the shallow, strangled Syr Darya River, whose waters have been diverted for irrigation, causing half of the Aral Sea, which it feeds, to dry up. Parallel to it ran the highway and railway, the main lines from Russia to Central Asia. Leninsk nestles in a crook of the river. North of it were the antennas, the fuel production plants, and launch pads of the cosmodrome. Thirty years earlier, pilot Francis Gary Powers had seen all this from his U-2 spy plane and soon regretted it. Now we are snapping pictures out the windows and our official Soviet escorts are just smiling.

At the airport terminal, it was obvious we were somewhere special. There was no place name, no ELEVATION 620 FEET marker, no list of arriving and ding flights. If you didn't already know where you were, you had no business asking.

On the way in from the airport, statues and billboards announced the region's space heritage. We passed a soaring figure of a space pilot, arms outstretched in a gesture of triumph. The locals, with the rich Russian sense of humor that makes hardships tolerable, privately call the statue "The Fisherman": In the middle of a vast desert they mockingly invoke the international gesture for "the one that got away.

(A few years later, the "fisherman" statue was gone, replaced by the emblem of the Russian military directorate which operates the space port. But local humor remains as biting as ever. They explained to me carefully in Russian that the "Baikonur Cosmodrome" was about to be renamed again. This time it would be called the "Baikadrom Kosmodur" -- a clever Russian pun which implied a place for lies told by "space fools".)

At the luxurious Hotel Baykonur, I saw they were ready for VIPs. The hotel was surrounded by a security fence with a continuously staffed guardhouse -- for protection against desert nomads, no doubt. Our guide, young Andrey, quickly realized we were not ordinary tourists. We skipped the run-of-the-mill questions and homed in on the real meat. "Where's the giant fuel tank half dome left over from the failed N-l moon rocket?" we asked. "We hear it's set up in town as a band shell." Andrey groaned as if he'd been shot.

Everyone kept his eyes peeled, but we never found the tank, a long-sought moon-rocket grail built in the Sixties. Recent Soviet newspaper accounts of its location were apparently wrong: It was actually set up about 70 kilometers north of the city as a sort of covered parking lot. Requests to visit it drew the stock refusal: "You didn't ask for it on your original request, and there's no time to change itinerary now." Next time for sure! (And later I found it and brought back pieces)

But we saw enough to satisfy us. We walked around a test model Energia booster on its launch pad -- except for the side where its payload was mounted. The assembly building for the Energia super-boosters was awesome, not as high as NASA's VAB at the Kennedy Space Center, but much wider. It was here, our guide whispered, that the doomed moon rockets were assembled for their ill-fated blastoffs 20 years before. The hangar for the Buran shuttles had bays for four vehicles, including the grounded original and the replacement due to orbit in late 1991.

We were awakened hours before sunrise to attend the roll-out of the TM-9 rocket from the assembly hall and the slow, dark rail ride to the launch pad two miles away. Without the blazing lights of a NASA roll-out, only the shadow of something shiny and big could be seen at first, until it loomed out of the ice fog into some streetlights. As I watched the rocket pass by, close enough that its side boosters leaned out over me, I sensed its grace and power.

At the Baikonur Cosmodrome, things didn't always look fancy -- the rocket workers dressed like railroad men -- but they were efficient and reliable, like the hotel. It was the only place in the USSR where I was able to make an overseas phone call. The spaceships are another example of this: I couldn't recall the last time they had missed an announced manned launch. There was also a well-designed public transportation system, a medical team for the cosmonauts, and the workers' own TV station and newspaper.

We saw the secret to the USSR's reliable, economical space launchings all around us. They standardize hardware and procedures, their hardware is designed for field -- that is, non-sterile -- conditions, and they avoid the unnecessary customizing of space vehicles so common -- and profitable -- in the West. NASA might benefit from these lessons, if it can overcome its "ours is best" arrogance and the predictable resistance from space contractors.

I wondered about the people who worked at the cosmodrome. What was it like to live "on the shores of the universe," as their space poets lyricized?

No Western film crew like ours had ever spent four full days at Baikonur, so we were able to wander the streets spontaneously, chatting with adults and the ever-curious, ever-delightful Russian children. The kids were the most outspoken. Every "Do you like it here?" received the same response: 'Nyet!" The adults were honest but more subtle. "It must be hard to live here, but interesting," I would volunteer. "Yes, hard" was the common answer, usually with a friendly grin. Asked if he was married, one local answered with a wry pantomime of an angry wife walking out, back to civilization in Moscow.

To attract workers, salaries here are double the national norm. Special stores, the perquisite of the Communist Party elsewhere, are open to all. But as the Soviet economy has contracted in recent years, these rewards have faded. By mid-1989 the Leninsk stores, like those elsewhere in the USSR, began rationing rare products -- meat, sugar, butter, and laundry detergent -- and one of the few advantages of living here disappeared.

The spaceport was built here because it was not populated, for the simple reason that it is a terrible place to live. The summers are scorching, the winters bitter, there is no water or shade, and it is heartbreakingly far from anywhere. A few decades ago, only the Kazakh nomads ran their sparse herds here, usually on their way somewhere else. If Earth has any human settlement halfway into outer space, this is it.

Yet the isolation is not total. True, people must stand in line at the post office for long-distance phone calls, and commercial airline seats are booked weeks in advance. But the city straddles major road and rail links, and vacationers can reach popular resorts and big cities with relative ease.

I know the winters in Chicago and Buffalo, but this place introduced me to genuine cold. Standing on the launch pad at dawn, I felt my feet go numb as the concrete sucked the heat from them. (At another midwinter launching, I made the mistake of pulling off my gloves to change my film, and the skin on my hands felt seared with flame -- they didn't feel "cold" at all, but they sure hurt).

The frost was spectacular, turning small stands of trees into diamond palaces. Each puff of biting wind swirled a thousand snowflakes off the branches, scintillating through the sunlight. This was a theme of life at the cosmodrome: The climate was harsh but often full of unexpected beauty. In May the steppe blazes with yellow tulips and the brief green of hardy prairie grass. By August the grass is baked yellow, but the carefully tended private gardens yield succulent tomatoes and melons. In the autumn, herds of wild camels and horses wander through on their way to winter grazing.

The harsh climate is compounded by the grayness and dullness of Soviet life. There are few stores or restaurants; the schools and hospital are overcrowded; and there are no churches. In the early years the dedicated space workers tolerated this, but now such sacrifices have become intolerable for people raising families. Gorbachev himself came to Leninsk in 1988 and promised a massive public works program, which by 1991 was obvious everywhere: new schools, facilities, apartments, to reduce discomfort for people whose attention to their jobs is crucial. (But by 1995, all construction had stopped, the abandoned cranes rusting like columns of a long-forgotten temple)

The Baikonur workers have a lesson for Soviet society. The people here work diligently and safely. In dedication I sensed they were akin to a medieval order of monks, in the best sense of that simile. Their work habits are so vastly superior to those elsewhere in the USSR that they are justifiably held up as examples.

But Leninsk is susceptible to the same fierce currents of tribalism so violently visible elsewhere in the multinational USSR. Seventy-seven of the 98 Soviet ethnic groups are represented here. The Central Asian nationalities do the dirty work in town, while the Slavic groups are the rocket scientists. Our guide admitted to a few anti-Russian riots by Kazakh mobs a few years ago but insisted all was calm now.

Security concerns are top priority. The city is surrounded by a fence with guard gates. Maps are nonexistent; street signs, rare. We weren't the only ones confused by this and were often approached by lost children asking directions. Questions about the names of unlabeled streets were answered with helpless shrugs or wrong answers. And here there are limits to glasnost. In one spot we were told not to film toward the west, although we saw nothing unusual in that direction. Another time it was made clear the power plant was off limits to photographs. Bus routes have names such as "To the End," and at the train station, only two of five platforms were labeled, and they said only EASTERN and WESTERN.

Still, they are becoming accustomed to foreign visitors, with some culture shock. An official assured me I could write about anything I saw but asked me not to be so crass as the French journalist who came for a space shot in 1988 and then published muckraking accounts of the "Glory and Mud of Baikonur." I calmed him with the news that the same journalist went to Houston in 1985 and wrote derisively about the "Glory and Mud of Johnson Space Center.

The people here take measureless pride in this place. The sense of building the future to honor the sacrifices of the past is deeply ingrained in them. Just east of the Cosmonaut Hotel is the "Avenue of Heroes," a row of desert trees, each planted after a flight by, or in posthumous honor of, a cosmonaut. At the end of the walk is a fenced platform jutting from the bluff overlooking the river. I arrived there at sunset on the evening before blastoff. The view was spectacular, magical. From the left the river approached from the distant Pamir Mountains, out of sight over the horizon. To the right were the city sports complex and the river promenade. Across the river were a few scattered buildings with the empty steppe looming beyond.

Suddenly the TM-9 spaceship commander appeared, with several doctors. Fifteen hours before blastoff, he'd chosen to enshrine this scene as his last Earth sunset for half a year. As they greeted us, I was concerned for medical isolation. They laughed: "Germs don't stand a chance in this cold. When he returned to this spot it would be midsummer. For a few final moments he was rooted to the soil of his home planet. A space at the end of the row of memorial trees was already marked for digging, and in a greenhouse, a young tree awaited.

Later that night as I strolled alone outside the hotel, I heard the throbbing of the recovery helicopters idling their engines nearby. I recalled other pre-launch nights at Cape Canaveral. I was far from Florida in the cold and snow, but my feelings were identical. All details of hardware, checklists, and security procedures faded to insignificance. These were my colleagues, my brothers on the same road, fellow aimers at the same tantalizing targets. Their triumphs and setbacks were my triumphs and setbacks. Their losses diminished me; their achievements strengthened me. I felt at home, no longer a stranger. At last in sync with the mounting rhythms of the spaceport, I found the few hours of sleep my anticipation allowed, before the morning when the sun rose twice over the steppe.





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