America's hard-up space partner: The Soviet Union's cosmodrome has been grounded by politics. Peter Bond reports

Almost 40 years ago, dozens of bulldozers and gangs of labourers arrived in a desolate spot in the south of what was then the Soviet Union. Their task: to construct a top-secret rocket-launching centre. Although the nearest settlement was a tiny town called Tyuratam, the authorities named the centre Baykonyr after a town hundreds of kilometres away. Leninsk, the name of the new residential centre where all the cosmodrome staff lived, remained unknown until the mid-Seventies when Americans were first allowed access to the site.

Today, little appears to have changed on the surface. Leninsk remains a closed, military city, under the control of the Russian army, whose sole purpose is to support the Baykonyr cosmodrome. It remains the most important launch centre for Russian rockets, including all crewed missions. Discarded rocket stages still plunge to earth to the east of the launch pads, and returning cosmonauts parachute on to the open steppes as they have done for the past 30 years.

Yet significant changes are taking place in this barren semi-desert, many related to the new political situation following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Baykonyr now lies deep inside the independent republic of Kazakhstan, and is seen as a valuable pawn in the political game between the impoverished Kazakhs and their Russian neighbours.

Now there is another important player: the United States. Defence Secretary William Perry recently visited Baykonyr, saying he hoped it would become a centre of co-operation between former Cold War enemies. Last year Russia became a partner in a project to build the international Alpha space station by the turn of the century. Some of the main components are to be launched by Russian rockets from Baykonyr. So there is great concern about the state of the facilities there, and the news - of riots, a fire and a failed launch - is not good.

Economic chaos and financial cutbacks in Russia have resulted in a lack of essential investment in maintenance and modernisation. Although one official told the American Anser consultancy that the reports of decay were exaggerated in order to squeeze more funds from the government purse, there seems more than a grain of truth in the stories.

Disturbing, too, are reports of criminal damage and unrest among workers at the centre. In February 1992, three people died when conscripts from the army construction forces burnt their barracks, looted food stores and hijacked cars. And last June 500 Kazakh soldiers rioted in protest at their poor living conditions, causing 1 billion roubles' ( pounds 370,000) worth of damage.

Launch failures from Baykonyr have traditionally been few and far between. Yet last May, a Proton rocket failed to place a communications satellite in orbit. An official inquiry blamed a highly contaminated fuel mixture which caused the engines to overheat. The commission recommended that quality checks be introduced for all propellants at Baykonyr.

Only a few weeks ago, a large fire broke out in a rocket assembly area, destroying equipment and damaging a nearby military building. Staff negligence was blamed, although Tass correspondents also noted that matters were made worse by an acute shortage of water.

A change in the cosmodrome's status has also been a factor. A recent report from Itar-Tass news agency stated that it was unprofitable to deliver new vehicles and equipment to Baykonyr because everything that entered Kazakhstan became the property of that country.

According to a recent report from Anser, the city of Leninsk seems to be in serious decline. Its population has dropped by around 40,000 in the past few years. Most of those who have departed are ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, leaving mainly local people unskilled in the operation of the space programme.

Anser commented: 'Their departure is largely a result of poor living conditions - only occasional hot water, a poor distribution of food, and frequent electrical outages . . . The cosmonaut compound and the hotel for international guests are reasonably well maintained. The hotel lacked only hot water, typical of Baykonyr . . .'

A US congressional delegation which visited Baykonyr last December arrived at similar conclusions. While the launch pads seemed in a good state of repair, the Americans commented on the need for 'major upgrade and investment' in Leninsk. Concerns were reflected in the request to Nasa boss Dan Goldin to study whether the US space agency will need to invest large sums in Baykonyr in order to support future launches.

Crucial to Baykonyr's long-term prospects are relations between the two neighbouring states. Although their country is unable to pay for or operate the launch complex, Kazakh officials have been determined to assert their right to joint control over the base. A compromise appears to have been reached with the signing of an agreement by Presidents Yeltsin and Nazarbaev on 28 March. Russia has agreed to pay Kazakhstan the equivalent of pounds 80m a year in return for a 20-year lease with an option of another 10 years. This will probably take the form of credit to help offset the large Kazakh trade imbalance.

Meanwhile, Baykonyr and Leninsk will continue under Russian jurisdiction and the military will remain in control of the cosmodrome. A further payment to help with cleaning up the toxic chemicals left by discarded rocket stages may be negotiated at a later date.

During the prolonged negotiations over the cosmodrome's future, loud voices, particularly among the Russian military, were heard in favour of an expansion of the other main launch centre at Plesetsk near Archangel. Unfortunately for Russia, Plesetsk lies near the Arctic Circle, and so is unsuitable for launching rockets into orbits close to the Equator. Moreover, it became clear that the vast investment required would not be forthcoming in the current economic climate.

However, this has not prevented the military from pressing its demands for a second, all-Russian cosmodrome. The latest candidate is an old missile base at Svobodnyy, near the Chinese border. Colonel-General Vladimir Ivanov, commander of Russia's military space forces, claimed that lightweight Rokot boosters could be operating from Svobodnyy as early as 1996, to be followed by a new generation of Angara heavy lift rockets by the year 2000.

Civilian officials have been less enthusiastic, maintaining that the present facilities are sufficient for future needs. Deputy premier Oleg Soskovets commented: 'We are unable to ensure the normal functioning of the available launch pads, never mind building a new one.' Indeed, there are those in the West who believe that the importance of Svobodnyy has been primarily as a negotiating tactic in the talks with Kazakhstan.

As for Baykonyr, it will continue as the leading Russian launch centre for the foreseeable future, although it seems increasingly likely that the Western nations will be asked to dip into their pockets to help their new-found partner to operate the huge facility.

(Photograph omitted)

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