AFR Sophisticated Traveller, October 2018
The only place you can see humans launched into space today is in Baikonur, Kazakhstan: a true icon of space history but one of the most remote places in the world. Tour operators will take you for a true bucket list experience – but go prepared for twists, says Chris Wright
Orange light illuminates the empty Kazakh steppe, not so much a launch as a detonation. The roar is massive, deep-voiced, muscular, and it rolls and bounds as the rocket emerges slowly from a ball of vivid flame. In an instant it is climbing, racing, an impossible vertical surge, and within a minute it is gone, indistinguishable from the stars in the clear March night. Soyuz mission MS-08 is on its way to the International Space Station.
At a viewing site two kilometres away, the launch lifts a mood that has been rather less elated. At the last minute, the Roscosmos space agency has ordered that the usual tourist viewing platform be replaced by a new one which turns out to have a view partially obscured by a hill, which is some achievement given that the steppe is flat for almost a million square kilometres all around. The spectators, who have paid as much as 4,000 euros to see the spectacle, have taken to breaching a security perimeter and staggering around in a neighbouring field in total darkness in pursuit of a better view.
This is Russian space tourism in a nutshell: exhilarating and exasperating, a combination of the mesmerizing sight of great human achievement and the fabulous inconvenience of actually seeing it.
Millions have taken the space tours of Florida’s Cape Kennedy or the Johnson Space Centre near Houston, but far fewer visit the launching grounds of the other Space Race heavyweight, the former Soviet Union. It shouldn’t be this way.
For a start, although it is usually said that the US won the space race by putting men on the Moon, every other staging post on the way to that achievement was done first by the Soviet Union. The first satellite in orbit, the first man in space, the first woman, the first space-walk, every duration record worth having: the Soviets were absolutely storming the space race until their visionary Chief Designer, Sergei Koralev, died in 1966. Had he not done so, his body weakened by years of suffering in a gulag under Stalin, the first human to walk on the Moon might well have been Russian.
Secondly, these days, if you want to send an astronaut, or cosmonaut as the Russians say, to the International Space Station, the only craft that can take you is a Russian Soyuz, and the only place it will take you from is Baikonur, a town in Kazakhstan under a 50-year lease to Russia. If Americans want to go to the ISS, they have to learn Russian and come here: the Space Shuttle, the only American craft capable of taking people aloft, was scrapped years ago.
Tours do exist to allow people to see both modern launches and the Cold War iconography. They are neither cheap nor convenient, but there is a growing constituency of foreign travelers for whom neither of those things matter: for space geeks, bucket list-tickers and enthusiasts of Soviet history, a tour like this can be a life highlight.
The biggest challenge is actually getting there.
Baikonur is one of the most remote places on the planet, and its obscurity is deliberate. In its earliest days, before manned spaceflight, it was a centre for missile development. The Soviets didn’t want the Americans to know where it was, and it was important not to be close to civilization in case of accidents (which still happened, one of them killing at least 78 people in a single explosion in 1960). Also for rocket launches it is handy to be as close as possible to the equator because the Earth has greater rotational speed there.
There are two ways in and out of Baikonur, and in the name of research I try a different one in each direction.
Coming in from Kazkahstan, you first have to get toKazakhstan, which is no mean feat in itself: from Australia, going via Bangkok is the easiest way (Australians can get a visa on arrival for 30 days). Then from the major cities of Almaty or Astana, you fly to a place called Kyzyl-Orda, an airport whose sophistication is best described through its luggage system: all the bags are piled into the back of a ute which is reversed to the terminal building where they are hurled through a window to waiting passengers.
Then, it’s a good three-and-a-half hour drive across the bleak and featureless steppe before you get to the town of Baikonur and its nearby cosmodrome complex, both of which you need special permission to enter, usually arranged by a guided tour.
There is an alternative: a few flights operate from Baikonur’s own airport to Moscow. I learn the disadvantage of this approach when I depart this way and find my plane is a Tupolev Tu-154, the workhorse of the Soviet fleet in the 1960s. It is the oldest aircraft I have ever seen operational, full of ashtrays and wooden toilet seats and endless vinyl beige, and not obviously refurbished in about half a century. Even Aeroflot stopped flying them years ago, and if you’re in a plane Aeroflot no longer considers it prudent to fly, it tends to add a hint of zip to your afternoon.
Once there, the first highlight of a trip to Baikonur Cosmodrome is the roll-out of the rocket.
This is a process largely unchanged for 60 years. Tradition dictates that the craft leaves its assembly house at 7am regardless of what time it will launch, and in Russian spaceflight you don’t mess with tradition: there are Soviet-era rules about everything from the movie every astronaut watches before launch (The White Sun of the Desert) to the trees that are planted for every departing astronaut in an avenue next to a Baikonur hotel.
When I visit in March, 7am is still total darkness, which makes the whole experience still more evocative. The rocket emerges from a hangar, flanked by burly diesel locomotives, laid on its side and appearing backside-first. The first you see of it is the red cones of its five mighty engines, then the body, topped by the capsule within which the cosmonauts will sit. Seeing the Cyrillic down its flanks it is impossible not to be transported back to a Cold War sense of the sinister and secretive, even though this mission will carry two Americans and be broadcast to the world.
As the train slowly shunts into the distance, parting cold fog as it goes, we all board our buses and drive to a place called Gagarin Crossing – an awful lot of things around here are called Gagarin, in tribute to Yuri, the first man in space – where you wait an hour in the cold being marshalled by men in military fatigues and big bear hats, until the rocket comes into view again.
The train and rocket, preceded by soldiers with bomb-sniffing dogs, pass over the level crossing just metres from you, and this is where Baikonur has a clear advantage over the old American launches: there’s no way you could ever get this close to a rocket in the US. The train in Baikonur moves a lot faster than the barely perceptible crawl of the tractors that used to move the Space Shuttles to the launchpad: the Soyuz moves slowly enough to have suitable gravitas and to enable the small crowds to take their selfies, but fast enough to make swift progress.
A Soyuz rocket is a baby compared to the Saturn Vs that took Americans to the moon half a century ago, but still its scale is daunting and its style is sleek. That thing is going to space with people in its nose, you think, and in the silence of the steppe it feels like it needs a soundtrack, something portentous and majestic.
The train rolls on to the launch site, called – inevitably – Gagarin’s Start, for this is where he became the first human to go to space in August 1961. We have been able to see the site from the crossing, with the jagged lattice of the launch tower split apart awaiting the rocket and the sun rising perfectly behind it in the cold, and now we return to our buses to go there, to one of the most storied places in all of space history.
Raising the rocket to its launch position is a swift and efficient process, all things considered, which is no surprise since 501 launches have taken place from this pad before the one we have all come to see. The train rolls into place, a huge hydraulic arm lifts the rocket off the train bed and up to the vertical, and from all sides the tower assembles itself like legs of an upturned spider closing in upon its prey. Workers scuttle up the tower’s arms to fix it all in place and by 10.30am the whole assembly is complete, just three and a half hours after it emerged from its hangar. The rocket stands upright, bracketed in steel, surrounded by the nothingness of the Kazakh steppe, and flags of many nations flutter alongside as fog slowly lifts in the sun.
What a sight.
But now there are three full days until the launch.
This is where space tours run into a bit of a challenge. Our launch will be just before midnight on the third day, and that time needs to be filled.
There are two interesting museums, one in the cosmodrome centre, one in the town of Baikonur itself, and they are diverting, full of paraphernalia dating from before the Sputnik satellite launch in October 1957, from spacesuits to paintings to a somewhat discomfiting stuffed rabbit. You can go in a Buran, the Soviet Union’s space shuttle, which flew only once before being discontinued as Soviet priorities changed.
And a real highlight is a pair of modest cottages, in one of which Yuri Gagarin slept the night before his historic flight, and in the other, Koralev, the chief designer. These have been preserved as they were. The beds look primitively sprung and tiny (Gagarin was five feet two), the furniture basic early 1960s, and the phone is a circular-dial museum piece which, like all the grey boxes of computers in the museums, with clunky switches like an old Olivetti typewriter, just look so incredibly old. And there is perhaps the most widely photographed toilet in the former Soviet Union, presumably the site of a final earthbound Gagarin ablution.
But there’s not a whole lot else. The town of Baikonur itself is disappointing, its buildings steadfastly Soviet and uninspiring, few bars or restaurants, and notably less grand than many other towns in either Kazakhstan or Russia.
And what really stands out on tours of the old launchpads, despite the scale of human achievement that is still practised here, is a sense of decay. One day we go to see two huge dishes, the Saturn tracking station, a legacy of long-gone lunar ambitions. The supporting infrastructure is falling apart. It is now a place of broken windows and boarded doors and faded red stars on doorways. It would make a perfect shooting location for a dystopian film set in a post-apocalyptic world. Even the operational places, like the Proton launchpads where unmanned rockets launch, look somehow scarred: the scorched flame pit, scalded iron that has borne the brunt of so much vicious energy.
One gets a similar sense from the underground complex where the Buran and Energia missions would have been run from, full of blocky metal computer consoles with great big buttons and incomprehensible diagrams on screens. What sticks in the mind there is a red key with ‘permission’ written on it in Russian, hidden by a black cover in case you accidentally put your coffee down on it and launched a missile.
This is the weirdest thing about Baikonur: amazing things still happen here, the greatest that science and engineering is capable of, yet it all feels like going back in time.
With pockets of time emerging while we wait for the launch, attention turns to one another. There’s a particular cachet of traveller for people like this. The cost and inconvenience means you only come here if you are fascinated by space travel anyway, or have some utterly strange other reason. Non-Russians number about a third of our group – that is to say, seven of us – and we make an interesting cross-section.
Some are genuine experts. A Ukranian woman has written a book on women in space and knows so much she ends up not only taking over much of the tour’s translation but even some of the guiding. Her partner, a Dutch-American pilot with a US airline, serves on the NASA astronaut scholarship foundation; both have met numerous Apollo veterans.
Then there’s a German blockchain specialist and doctor whose enthusiastic bass “ja”s become the soundtrack to the trip; a quiet but daring Englishman who has driven his Ford Fiesta all the way from York and taken a year and a half to do it; an American who is on a mission to visit every country in the world – 118 and counting; and an effervescent Hong Kong-based American investment banker with a passion for Soviet history who radiates such energy you could reasonably expect to charge your mobile phone just by standing next to her. Then there about a dozen Russians, although language barriers stop us spending much time with most of them.
One thing that becomes clear is that no two people appear to have paid the same amount for the tour. Our agency, StarCity Tours, is one of several operating trips to see the launches. They vary from local Kazakh operations – of mixed reputation: we have heard stories of people who find their tour doesn’t even get them into the complex, and they end up watching the launch from a more distant road – to groups that bring astronaut family members.
What you’re paying for, more than anything, is the access rights: it’s the one bit you couldn’t feasibly do yourselves. And at around Eu4,000 for a StarCity tour, with food included in the stout and functional Sputnik Hotel and charter flights from Moscow on an ancient jet, it’s a price point that may discourage all but the committed.
But there are plenty who care enough to do it: though numbers are hard to come by, StarCity says foreign visitor numbers are increasing all the time. They are impeded by limited hotels, which around launch time are already at capacity, with the nationalities of the visitors varying with those of the departing astronauts; when Japanese fly, for example, Japanese visitors fill the town.
Eventually it is launch night and a whole other set of traditions kicks in to gear. We go to the cosmonaut hotel where the flyers emerge to a reception more commonly afforded to Popes. The air is filled with cameras, iphones, selfie-sticks, and the families are there, smiling and containing what most be terrible anxiety. Then we go to another building to see the astronauts emerge once more, this time in their spacesuits, to be greeted by two state council officials before boarding their bus, with people holding children up to touch the windows as if they were bidding farewell to departing gods.
We kill time in the museums before the launch, with two of the Russians breaking the monotony by ordering mug-sized whiskey and cokes in a five-to-one ratio in favour of the whiskey, and then head to the makeshift viewing platform, which is where we began our story, tripping over one another in a neighbouring field in the dark, then open-mouthed and enchanted in the thunder and the light.
As the roar fades and the light ebbs and the rocket disappears, we stagger back to the viewing area tent where there are screens showing the mission progress. We see the separation of the rocket stages, live footage of the astronauts in their capsule now many miles above our head. It has all been so quick: in the time it has taken us to tramp from our field, people have gone into space.
Back on the bus our mood is elated, the inconveniences forgotten. Champagne is served, and Kazakh chocolate, and it is pointed out that today is Kazakhstan’s New Year’s Day, which adds to the carnival atmosphere. We are all like children, comparing notes on what we saw, the hits and misses of our photography, how damn quickit all was.
Wired, I end up accidentally gate-crashing the post-launch party of the backup astronauts, then drink cognac til four in the morning with a cast of characters that includes a former astronaut, an Austrian collector of stamps that have been to the Moon, my new German blockchain friend and a man who brought Tetris to the world and is now building his very own Mars habitat in Hawaii.
Nothing broadens your world, it turns out, more than watching other people leaving it.