History Of Baikonur Cosmodrome Includes Many Firsts For Russian Space Program
April 12, 2014

History Of Baikonur Cosmodrome Includes Many Firsts For Russian Space Program

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Forty-three years ago today, the former Soviet Union launched the first human into space. Now, on this International Day of Human Spaceflight, which coincides with the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s famous leap into space, Russia celebrates the history of spaceflight from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

According to a new infographic released by Portland Communications, Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan, is the world’s first and largest operational space facility. The spaceflight center, which was founded on June 2, 1955, has defined the history of international spaceflight – from launching the first human into space, to its role as the sole launch site for manned missions to the International Space Station today.

But even before Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight, a human presence in space may not have been achieved if it weren’t first for the country’s earlier attempts at sending animals into orbit. On November 3, 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to orbit the Earth, paving the way for the future of human spaceflight.

With Laika’s success, the Soviet Union began working toward sending the first human to space. On April 12, 1961, Gagarin launched aboard his Vostok 1 spacecraft and completed one full orbit of Earth before returning home safely, helping to secure a future for manned spaceflight, which includes Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon in 1969, and the hundreds of manned missions to the ISS.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome not only played a major role in the early days of the Soviet space program, it has also been a site for many firsts. Besides launching the first animal and human into space, the spaceflight center also hosted the first satellite, Sputnik 1, which was launched from the facility on October 4, 1957.

Baikonur Cosmodrome’s firsts also include the launch of Luna 1, the first satellite to travel in close proximity to the moon, and the launch of the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, who made the epic journey into space on June 16, 1963.

Other firsts linked to the spaceport were the launch of the first automatic robot that would walk on the moon in 1970 and the launch of the first woman – Svetlana Savitskaya – to walk in space in 1984. As well, Baikonur launched the first long-duration ISS crew in October 2000 and the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, in April 2001.

At first thought, the Kazakhstani village of Tyuratam may seem like an unlikely place to build a spaceflight center. However, the desert steppe was chosen for its remoteness and its relative proximity to the equator. The very remoteness of the location, as well as the scale of technical ambition, made Baikonur one of the costliest infrastructure projects in Soviet history. New roads and rail had to be built to service the center, as well as a new town – then called Leninsk (since renamed Baikonur) – that came complete with housing and schools for staff and their children.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Kazakhstan became an independent state. However, Russia’s space program continued to operate from Baikonur and in 2005, the country ratified an agreement with Kazakhstan to continue using the spaceport until 2050 at a fixed annual rate of $115 million US.

As the Russian space program moved forward into the 2010s, the Baikonur Cosmodrome become the sole launch facility capable of sending man into space after NASA's Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, after more than 30 years of service.

Perhaps one of the coolest stories to come out of Baikonur in recent memory is last year’s return of Expedition 35 from the International Space Station, which included Canadian Space Agency’s Chris Hadfield, who was the first Canadian to take command of the ISS. Upon his return to Baikonur, Hadfield was gifted a dombre, Kazakhstan’s version of the guitar.

It was prior to his departure from the ISS that Hadfield covered David Bowie’s Space Oddity – to date, the video has been watched more than 21 million times. Along with his YouTube hit, Hadfield’s numerous Tweets and photos from the five months he spent aboard the ISS has made him a space superstar.

[ Watch the Video: Chris Hadfield Performs David Bowie's Space Oddity ]

The excitement Hadfield had sparked across the world recaptured some of the wonder and excitement of space travel when Gagarin first launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for his historic 1961 journey into the unknown.


Image Below: An infographic highlighting the history of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Portland Communications