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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks