When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia suddenly found that its main rocket launch facility was situated in newly independent Kazakhstan. Since then, the two countries have periodically squabbled over the strategic Baikonur Cosmodrome. And now the Kremlin is pouring billions of dollars into a new site in the Far East that President Vladimir Putin says will allow Russia to remain an “independent” space power.
In the closed town of Baikonur, where the engineers live, the idea of Russia's departure does not sit well with locals, ethnic Kazakhs and Russians alike. “It will be a mess,” said Adilkhan Kulanov, a utility worker. “Everything works because the Russians are here.”
A student says she hopes her Russian university does not close its doors before she graduates. But already the town looks forsaken, not the kind of place that sends rockets into space. Residents complain about heating shortages.
The Soviets built Baikonur at the height of the Cold War as a missile-testing range. These days Russia pays $115 million annually to lease this remote chunk of desert, a parcel of land about the size of the US state of Delaware. While the Russian space program may no longer set the pace when it comes to space exploration, Roscosmos maintains a busy schedule in Kazakhstan. The Russian federal space agency launches 20 to 25 rockets from Baikonur every year, roughly four of them manned Soyuz missions.
Kazakhstan has pushed for more oversight at Baikonur, but that may just be pushing the Russians away. In July 2013, a Proton-M carrier rocket exploded shortly after liftoff. It was the fourth Proton disaster at Baikonur in 14 years, say officials at Kazcosmos, the Kazakh space agency, emphasizing that Proton rockets use especially toxic fuels. Russia has balked at paying for the cleanup, they add. Environmentalists are outraged.
The manned launches confer prestige upon Baikonur, and Kazakhstan – a country that craves international attention – gains status as a space power by default. Since NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, Soyuz missions offer the only route to the International Space Station. NASA pays Roscosmos over $76 million a seat.
Kazakhstani officials stress they do not want Russia to leave, yet the Kazcosmos boss has threatened to tear up the lease. Meanwhile, Russia seems in no mood to play games: many in Moscow believe such a strategic asset as a spaceport should be situated on Russian soil anyway. It is no surprise, then, that Izvestia, a newspaper known to toe the Kremlin line, reported in August that funding to maintain Baikonur would end next year.
Russia is pouring resources into its 400-billion-ruble ($8.5 billion) Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast. During a visit in September, Putin instructed workers to be ready for a test launch next year. By 2020, Roscosmos says, launches at Baikonur should drop from 65 percent of Russia’s total to 11 percent.
Optimists say Vostochny will handle manned rockets by 2018. Skeptics call it a boondoggle, and point out that, despite Roscosmos’ rapidly growing budget, Russia is careening toward recession. Yuri Karash of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics dismisses Vostochny as “propaganda to show Russia is a great space power.”
The project has been dogged by delays, prompting Putin to put it under Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s direct supervision. Rogozin has installed video cameras and warned workers that he is watching. In keeping with skeptics’ expectations, on October 29 a state official in charge of construction was arrested for embezzling $40 million.
Should Russia succeed, it will have built a copy of Baikonur, making the legendary site redundant. And though Russia’s Baikonur lease runs to 2050, it can terminate with a year’s notice, according to the deputy head of Kazcosmos, Yerkin Shaimagambetov.
Even if Vostochny meets its deadlines, Russia may not leave just yet. For one, there is too much proprietary equipment, including missile silos, says Asif Siddiqi, an expert on the Russian space program at Fordham University. “The place is gigantic. It has tons and tons of pads, tracking stations, control stations. What’s going to happen to all that? I think that’s something the [Russian] security folks will want to get involved in,” Siddiqi told EurasiaNet.org. “That’s probably the only bargaining chip the Kazakhs have.”
Moreover, as long as Russia continues to use the Soyuz family of rockets for its manned launches, there is a technical rub at Vostochny. A NASA engineer says the terrain around the new cosmodrome is not compatible with the Soyuz’s emergency landing protocols.
In some ways, neither Vostochny nor Baikonur is ideal for the Russian space program. Commercial satellite launches (mainly with Proton rockets) drive the Russian space industry. They account for 36 percent of global business, worth $600 million annually, says Rachel Villain of Euroconsult. But it is easier to launch large payloads closer to the equator, where the earth’s rotational speed is fastest. Vostochny is at 52 degrees north and Baikonur is at 46 degrees. Since 2011, Russia has launched nine unmanned rockets from the European Space Agency’s spaceport in French Guiana (at 5 degrees north).
Kazakh officials complain Russia is not treating them like partners. In 2004, the two countries agreed to work together on the next generation of Russian carrier rocket, the Angara, which would be cleaner than the Proton and launch from Baikonur; Russia was to build the rocket and Kazakhstan the ground facilities. But Russia kept raising the cost of Kazakhstan’s contribution, says Shaimagambetov at Kazcosmos, from $223 million to “10 times” that. The deal has fallen apart and next month Russia is scheduled to test the long-delayed Angara from a military facility near the White Sea.
Shaimagambetov says he hopes Russia will stay, at least to use Baikonur as a reserve launch pad. If not, he insists, private Western companies are eager to set up shop at Baikonur. But much of the technology Russia would leave behind is proprietary. “This equipment is not interchangeable,” said Karash of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics. “A launch pad is not like a runway that other spacecraft can use.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.