Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

The 'secret' city where UAE astronaut will reach for the stars

Baikonur was once banished from the map but will now forever have a place in UAE history as the launch pad for a nation's long-held dream to soar into space

Baikonur was once one of the most restricted places on Earth. It was a city banished from the map that kept the secrets of Russia’s space programme hidden from its mortal enemy, the capitalist West.

To conceal its true location, the Soviet Union even played a trick with its name, giving the site the same name as a mining town hundreds of kilometres away.

It was from here that Russia achieved a remarkable series of space firsts. Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, launched from Baikonur in 1957; in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space after taking off from the site in 1961; two years later it was the launch site from which Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space; and Salyut, the first space station, was sent into orbit from Baikonur.

The Soviets apparent supremacy in space sent a shiver through the White House and the Pentagon.

No longer. Today Baikonur sits like an island of the communist era, surrounded by the Republic of Kazakhstan, after the break up of the USSR in 1991.

The vast empty desert steppes stretch away for hundreds of kilometres. It is a three-hour drive from the nearest airport.

The city and the nearby Baikonur Cosmodrome are now leased for 50 years from Kazakhstan. It costs Russia tens of millions in rent every year.

Kazakhs drive the city’s taxis and clean its streets, but Baikonur remains resolutely Russian, fenced and guarded, accessible to outsiders only with an official pass from Moscow. Even Russians joke it is like travelling back in time to the Soviet Union.

Most of its buildings date from the 1970s, many faded and crumbling. The population has fallen from 70,000 to barely half that in 40 years. Apartment block windows that have been bricked up can be seen everywhere. The streets are crisscrossed with miles of overground pipes that carry steam for heating in the savage winter months.

The city’s monuments speak of its glory years. A statue of Gagarin is still a place of pilgrimage. There is a life-size replica of a Soyuz rocket in one park, with the letters CCCP — the Russian characters for USSR, still painted on the side. In a nearby children’s playground, the slide is shaped like a space ship

It is space that keeps the city alive. Since Nasa suspended manned flights in 2011, the Soyuz ship, first designed in the 1960s, has been the only way to reach the International Space Station.

America pays a hefty price to send its astronauts on Russia’s space taxi, estimated at $75 million (Dh275m) per seat. With America constantly keeping a presence on the ISS, this more than pays the rent.

And despite the city being outwardly shabby, the people of Baikonur look prosperous and well dressed. The supermarkets may still be drab and dark inside, but the shelves, often empty under communism, are well stocked with global brands. Life goes on.

How long will this continue? Nasa is likely less than a year away from being able to send American astronauts back to space in American rockets. It will no longer need Soyuz.

When the dollars dry up, it remains to be seen how long Russia will continue to subsidise its expensive curiosity. A new space launch pad is being built in Siberia and has already sent cargo ships into orbit.

For the moment, though, when it comes to sending humanity into space, it’s just like 1961 and Baikonur is still the only game in town.

Updated: September 26, 2019 12:44 PM

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