Russian Space Center in Kazakhstan Counts Down Its Days of Glory

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BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- On a sultry desert evening, as bats fluttered about this town's riverfront park, a man emerged from a reedy marsh carrying a bundle of grass tied with twine.

Setting it down to brush himself off, he explained that he was keeping a calf in the courtyard of an apartment building across town, where he had settled in recently after the previous occupants, engineers with the Russian space program, moved out.

Baikonur, in remote western Kazakhstan, was once the pride of the Soviet Union, the home of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the launching site of Sputnik, the dog Laika and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. But today, nomadic herders from the nearby steppe are moving into abandoned buildings.

That is just one of the signs of the city's long fade into the sunset of post-Soviet social and economic problems, which are all the more remarkable given that much of the world, including the United States, still relies on Baikonur for manned space launchings. The only other site for such liftoffs is in Jiuquan, in the Gobi Desert in China.

"It's painful for me to think of my town," Anna Khodakovskaya, the editor of the local newspaper, said of its glum state. The first cellphones appeared here in 2004; the first M.R.I. machine in 2011. "We are not ahead of the planet in anything but space," she said.

Today 70 percent of Baikonur's residents are Kazakh citizens, but the town remains a Russian enclave rented from the Kazakh government and administered under Russian jurisdiction. At the time of the Soviet breakup, the ratios were reversed: it was only about one-third Kazakh.

Along with the squatting herders, day laborers and market traders stroll the streets, with only the occasional aging Russian engineer visible.

It is a dusty town, where many sidewalks are sandy tracks but nearly every building is decorated with a mosaic of a rocket, a spacewalking cosmonaut or stars and fanciful renderings of planets. In fountains, water bubbles from spouts shaped like rockets, and signed portraits of astronauts adorn the walls of cafes, where coffee is served in the Turkish style with grounds in the cup.

It is a loose end from the breakup of the Soviet Union that has, strangely, become extraordinarily important for every manned space program except China's.

NASA last month extended the contract for astronaut launchings for a year, until mid-2017, for an additional $424 million. For now, every American astronaut blasts off from this town, the stand-in for Cape Canaveral during a gap in funding for manned missions in the United States.

Because of this dependency, NASA now requires all its astronauts in training to achieve proficiency in Russian before graduating to the astronaut corps.

The space agencies of the European Union, Japan and Canada also launch from here on Russian rockets, under an agreement with NASA to repurchase about half of the six seats NASA buys annually from the Russians.

From all this, Baikonur may sound like a prosperous hub of space activity. But the state of affairs is only temporary -- every nation including Russia, which is building a replacement launchpad on its own territory in the Far East, called Vostochny, views this state of affairs as temporary. As a result, the city of Baikonur has been ignored, and it is falling apart.

"Russia will not be able to roll up the roads and take them away when it leaves," Ms. Khodakovskaya said.

Social problems typical of Central Asia today, like abuse of heroin smuggled from Afghanistan, labor migration and growing Islamic fundamentalism, are creeping into the city. A few years back, the police arrested men in Tura-Tam, a Kazakh village just outside Baikonur's guarded fence, for distributing leaflets for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a fundamentalist Islamic group.

The town is a low boil of ethnic tension, too, as Russians hold nearly all the high-paying space jobs. In 2011, young Kazakh men ran in a mass down a central street yelling, "The head is a dog," a reference to the Russian mayor.

At the outdoor market, behind heaps of apricots and tomatoes, traders flash gold-toothed smiles and hawk Central Asian pottery glazed with crudely drawn rockets, or the smiling face of Yuri Gagarin in a helmet. Flies sampled the savory pies of mutton and pumpkin on display.

Before space missions, NASA astronauts and administrators stay at an upscale hotel on the edge of town, where the cheapest room is about $340 a night, rarely venturing into the town.

NASA's interlude here is surreal, to be sure, though the United States has had gaps in its ability to reach space before: from the end of the Apollo program in 1975 until the first shuttle mission in 1981, and after both shuttle disasters.

"We have always been treated with tremendous hospitality under difficult logistical circumstances," Rob Navias, a NASA spokesman, said in an interview here before the launching of an American astronaut, Karen L. Nyberg, last month. "We are in a transition period right now, and we are hoping the transition is a short one."

American astronauts ride a bus to the Russian rockets over a rutted, bumpy road where camels graze on the shoulders; nobody bothers to fill the potholes.

Even President Vladimir V. Putin, in a speech on Cosmonaut Day on April 12, referred to Baikonur as "physically aged."

"These people are putting up rockets, but the town itself is like a third-world country," said Jene Ragan, a software engineer from Bethesda, Md., who came as a tourist to watch a liftoff in May, swatting at flying ants out on the steppe while watching the rollout of a rocket.

Alarmed at the state of Baikonur, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency, Talgat Musabayev, in December suggested canceling the rental agreement with Russia; Kazakhstan charges Russia $115 million a year for the town. "The agreement has run its course," Mr. Musabayev said.

The Kazakhs bristle at Russia's efforts to keep Kazakh squatters out of abandoned buildings, which are formally Kazakh property, noting the housing shortage in the region. They complain of debris falling on their territory from jettisoned rocket stages.

In response, the Russians threatened to simply pull out entirely in 2018 when Vostochny is ready for manned launchings, Izvestia reported.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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