A week in one day

Soyuz rocketBaikonur, 19 December 2011 – At the moment I write this I have spent 28 hours in Baikonur. That is 26 more than when I wrote my blog yesterday. But it feels like more, way more. A day with a full schedule and weird coincidences, which can turn an ordinary trip into a great adventure! It definitely turned these 26 hours into an experience that feels like a week. It started with the alarm clock at 7:30 this morning…

After the alarm clock I got up to take a shower and get dressed for the day. The hotel we stay at doesn’t even have a ‘hotel’ sign outside, which is probably right. It is not the best place I have ever stayed at. The poor hotel quality also means that the shower had only two settings: too hot or boiling. So after a short shower I got dressed. Thermals under my normal clothes, an expedition-proof down jacket and two pairs of gloves and two hats in my daypack.

In the lobby we met with our guide Elena who urged us into a van outside. She told us that temperatures had dropped to -29°C that morning, but somehow it didn’t feel as cold as it felt at Kyzylorda railway station yesterday, when we waited for our train to arrive. The driver took us to another hotel in Baikonur, about 5 minutes away, at the central Lenin Square. We were having breakfast there, as the café at our hotel was closed on Monday, even though it was fully booked due to the upcoming Soyuz launch. Breakfast consisted of bread, sweet Nescafe coffee and fried eggs with baked spam (or whatever the Russian equivalent is to that). The eggs and spam were served with a spoon. When we were halfway our eggs we were served a sweet rice and butter porridge, which was actually quite nice. At our own request and by pointing out the juice cartons with oranges on it, we got two small glasses of watery orange juice. “Ah, apelsin!” the lady behind the counter said. Not the most difficult word to remember…

After breakfast we were rushed into the Gaz-van that had been waiting for us. 13 seats for the two of us. Well, not really. Before driving off to the cosmodrome we drove the other way. First to get gas for the car. A full tank and two 1-gallon water bottles with fuel, that were put into the back. Then to pick up our ‘security guard’ for the day. Apparently tourists with a guide and driver cannot enter the cosmodrome without an official Tsenki or Roscmosmos guard. So this lady got in, did not introduce herself, and we drove off. At the Baikonur city checkpoint another lady came on board, also without introducing herself. So two tourists, accompanied by four locals were waived through the cosmodrome main security gate.

The adventure starts here!

This is where I felt the adventure really started! It feels kind of special, being driven through a security gate marked by a picture of Yuri Gagarin (actually everything here is marked with a picture of Yuri Gagarin), into one of the most historic places of the world, that had been a Soviet secret for decades. Totally excited we drove on into the endless plains of the Kazakh steppe. The first miles after the security gate there is a lot of nothing. A road, paralleled by a railway, flanked by endless stretches of flat, snow covered prairie.  But then we passed a factory. “The biggest oxygen factory in the world”, said our guide. Oxygen as rocket fuel, that is. Not sure if she is right, but a big plant is is! Then again endless empty wasteland for a few miles. About 20 miles past security the road forks into the road leading to the “left-side, central and right-side of the complex”, according to our guide. One of our ‘passengers’ was dropped at the junction. Only upon asking who this lady was, our guide told us she was the director of the Baikonur Museum. We would see here again there tomorrow.

Launch pads!

So we took the road to the right. To cut our program short: tomorrow we will go left and the day after tomorrow we will go straight on. The road to the right is the main road to a few dozen launch pads stretching out over 30 miles to the east, including active Zenith sites 42 and 45, and Soyuz launch pad 31. Our visit comprised all of those three. Only when arriving at the Zenith pads we were told that inside the security gates we were not allowed to take pictures there. What a bummer! We thought our permit included a photography permit. Apparently it does, but only for the museums and pad 250. There is a strict no-photo policy for active pads.

But apart from taking pictures, you can do everything at the pads! Our driver took us through the security gate at Zenith site 45, and we walked through the snow right onto the pad! Elena warned us not to fall into the concrete pit underneath the pad, but let us walk all over the structure to the edge of the deep pit, with the launch tower stretching right behind us. Very impressive, to stand on the launch pad itself. And next to the active “left” launch pad, there is the inactive “right” launch pad 45. Inactive because of a fire and explosion that took place here, basically destroying the pad. Twisted and rusty fragments and a rubbled launch pad scatter the immediate surroundings, in the shadow of a rusty launch tower. Our guide just said that an explosion happened here. She didn’t know what, when, how or why. Perhaps not the best guide… Ah well, at least she let us take a few candid pictures of the rubble.

Rubble at Zenith launch pad 45 "right"

Destroyed launch pit at Zenith pad 45 "right"

Only when researching later I found out that this rubble is caused by a launch failure in 1990. Russianspaceweb.com: “On October 4, 1990, during its 14th launch, the Zenith’s first stage failed five seconds after liftoff from the “right” launch complex at Site 45. According to eyewitnesses, the launch vehicle lifted to an altitude of about 70 meters, froze in the air for a fraction of a second and then started slowly falling back to the pad. A flame burst to the side from the tail section of the rocket as it collapsed back into the flame trench, directly below the launch pad. An enourmous explosion and fire followed.”

After the Zenith pads we were driven to the nearby Soyuz pad 31. A much larger complex than Zenith site 45, and an almost exact copy of the famous Gagarin pad number 1. A much stricter security gate here too, but again we were allowed to drive up to less than a 100 yards of the actual launch tower. We then walked the last bit to the tower itself, where we could put our feet onto the cosmonaut stairway to the elevator and lean over the edge inside the tower to look into the very deep concrete pit underneath. We learned that the Soyuz rocket ‘hangs’ into the four supporting arms that only swivel away as the rocket overcomes its own weight, moments after ignition. There is nothing supporting the boosters or first stage as they are fired over the deep pit. We touched the large bright yellow counterweights for the four swiveling arms and the umbilical structure. The railway line carrying the rocket-train continues all the way to the edge of the pit. A freshly painted large rocket-carrier-train was parked a few meters from the edge. It was easy to see how the train plays an important part in the positioning of the rocket at the pad, where it swivels from the carriage into the service structure, lowering the booster and first stage engines deep into the pit itself. This set up, which we could touch and feel ourselves made this feel like a historic visit!

Baikonur Soyuz launch complex 31

 

Baikonur city by day

After this great excursion we drove back to the main road and into town, again passing the oxygen plant near the entrance. In town we were taken to the same Tsentralniskya hotel for lunch. Our hot lunch consisted of fried rice, a bowl of soup and a cold beetroot-herring salade. Basically the same as our dinner yesterday. After lunch we had two hours of ‘free time’. So we decided to take a walk through town, checking out some of the monuments we had zoomed past during the day. So we walked about 5 miles, starting with Lenin Square (statue of Lenin), followed by Baikonur’s depressing main street. Due to severe cold in winter and extreme heat in summer shops and restaurants have no windows. Just blank doors with small signs. No ads, no lights, just a door and a sign. So when you cannot read the signs, there are no clues as to what you’ll find inside.

Space monuments

On Baikonur’s main thoroughfare, Korolev Prospect, there are several monuments in between the concrete apartment buildings. First from city center is Korolev Park, boasting a statue of the big Soviet space program engineer himself. Across the road is a large Soviet-style heroic mural of the history of spaceflight, but painted in the national colors of Kazakhstan: yellow and blue. Next to this painting is a bad 1:5 scale model of a Proton rocket, painted in the Kazaks colors.

Diagonally across from the Proton monument is the most interesting monument of them all: The Soyuz monument. This monument ‘simply’ consists of a real, life-size Soyuz rocket. Not a mockup, but the real thing! They must have had a few spare rockets laying around, and decided to turn scrap metal into a monument. And even now, in the heart of winter, it looked brand spanking new! In a shiny fresh coat of white paint, the kerosene tanks in the fuselage in yellow and the rocket engines in bright red, it looks ready for launch! Instead it just sits there in a small park along the main road, pointing to the skies it will never reach in a 15 degree angle. And it offers the best photo opportunities imaginable! Low enough to be touched, but too high for graffiti.

Soyuz rocket in Baikonur   Soyuz rocket with @SpaceHuggie

After visiting Soyuz on Korolev Prospect, we turned right onto Adai Street, the other main road through town. It basically connects the older, 1960’s and 1970’s part of town, with the new area 5 and 6 parts, that were built in the 1980’s for the Energia-Buran project. Our hotel is on this road, as well as the main workers’ railway station to the cosmodrome. Monuments here are not overly interesting, but the road leads to the first concrete apartment blocks and an Antonov-12 ‘monument’, consisting of a worn version of the Russian cargo plane on a big block of concrete. Walking back from the Antonov towards Lenin Square, over a tree-lined open footpath you reach two of the most important monuments: those of the October 1960 and 1963 disasters. During the first disaster 120 workers were killed when a rocket exploded on the pad, well before launch. The second disaster, on the exact same date three years later, was caused by a fire in an SS-18 ballistic missile inside the launch cellar.

City museum

Returning from our walk we were just in time to see our van parking at our hotel, so we continued straight to the Museum of the History of Baikonur Cosmodrome. Here we were introduced to an English speaking guide. This was good, as all explanations were Russian only. It quickly became clear that this museum alone is worth a trip to Baikonur. A true space fan gold mine! Many original space flight artifacts. Shrapnel from failed and successful launches. Great original pictures of the heroes of Soviet and Russian spaceflight. Uniforms worn by cosmonauts. Or by space tourists Anousheh Ansari and Greg Olsen. A dog capsule built for space dog Laika and signed pictures and guest books by visiting astronauts or other spaceflight dignitaries.

Soyuz TMA launch seat and suitLaika's capsule

All explanations are in Russian, but fortunately we are provided with an English speaking guide of the museum. The space part of this cultural museum consists of three exhibit halls. The first hall is about the history of the cosmodrome, from its founding in 1955 until present day Baikonur. The site was selected by Russian military who came straight out of World War II, in the early 1950’s. It was selected initially as a highly secret ballistic missile base for Russian nuclear warheads. But as early as 1957 a ballistic rocket was used to launch a civil payload – the world’s first satellite Sputnik. After that launch the site went through its evolution until its present state. And in a few weeks the conversion from a military site to a civil Roscosmos-led cosmodrome will be complete, with the departure of the last military units. At the end of our visit to this first exhibition area we are joined by another Dutch space tourist. So we are not the only tourists here after all!

The second hall of the museum is about rocket technology and the many missions that were undertaken from Baikonur. This large room features many unique items related to the most famous space missions. Technical equipment, space suits, Soyuz seats, space food and lots of cosmonaut signed photos and other memorabilia. In this area we run into a NASA delegation, including the director of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier. They are here to present a signed flag to the museum and some other official ceremonies. They also sign the VIP guest book, which we can read after they have left the room. It has also been recently signed by TMA-03M astronaut Andre Kuipers and his crewmates, the reason for our stay in Baikonur.

The other two halls are very small. The first about Kazakhstan culture consists of a yurta traditional nomadic tent with local costumes, furnishings and musical instruments. The other is a temporary exhibit room, which is now dedicated to the 50-year anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961. It boasts a few unique pictures of Gagarin and his family, and many memorabilia signed by im or his family members.

A memorable evening

This evening we have nothing in our schedule, so we decide to venture out to one of the two restaurants mentioned in my guidebook. We heard about this place where you can eat inside a yurta, so that’s where we head. Upon approaching the yurta next to the restaurant we hear people speaking Dutch. A young lady is standing outside to make a phonecall. We approach her when she hangs up and she responds very surprised. “You are Dutch? What are you doing here?”. When we explain her that we are two space fans saying goodbye to Andre Kuipers she is even more surprised. “No press? And you arranged your trip yourselves? Impossible! How did you get permits?”.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, she invites us into the yurta, where about 30 surprised people stare at us. Apparently we have run into the entire European/American press delegation, here for dinner. Among them many Dutch TV, radio and newspaper reporters, some of whom we know. And some of whom know about me and my twitter activities! What a weird coincidence! After a few brief, still surprised, introductions we are poured a shot of Vodka and we join the gang. It is funny to find that the reporters immediately see a news story in our arrival and they jot down our names and phone numbers. One of them even does an immediate newspaper interview. They can’t believe that we have been able to get a permit and spend much more time at the interesting sites than they can. On the other hand they make us jealous by telling about their access to the Soyuz roll-out and press conferences with the cosmonauts. When they have to leave, they promise to get back to us for more interviews really soon.

Still a little overwhelmed by all this unexpected and massive media attention we leave the yurta and get into the proper restaurant next door. We are politely greeted and pointed up the stairs, into the main restaurant hall. A Kazakh disk jockey plays local music and we are seated at a nice wooden table in the wood-panelled room. There are only a handful of guests. The waitress speaks just enough English (basically yes and no) to order two beers and a menu. Menu card in Russian. No translation, no pictures. The waitress suggests shasliks, which sound good, so we order two. When they arrive they come without any side dishes, so we ask for “salat”. The waitress flips through the menu pages and reads the salad options. Without a clue what they are, we order some mid-priced items. A good choice. We also order two more shasliks, that we now know are barbecue-grilled skewers of tender meet. When after half an hour the DJ puts on a karaoke CD and starts to sing Kazakh songs, our evening is complete. We enjoy a few songs, pay the bill and walk back to our hotel for the night.