Space starts here

How to visit the Baikonur launch pad - the first to send a man to space.

For the first manned spaceflight we should thank… the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. It sounds weird, or even scary, but it’s a fact. The invention of nuclear weapons required a way to deliver that dangerous cargo to hostile territory: thus, special areas and facilities were necessary for missile tests.

In the 1950s, the Soviet government decided to build a testing facility in the deserted vastness of southwest Kazakhstan. That area, near Tyuratam village, became legendary. The first man-made satellite of Earth was launched there, and astronaut Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) started his journey here with the famous quote: “Let’s go!” This quote can now be used by any tourist who dreams of watching rockets fly upward, taking passengers into orbit.

To breathe this cosmic air, you need to undertake a one- or two-day trip. First, you must travel from Almaty (the former capital of Kazakhstan) or Astana (the current capital) to the city of Kyzylorda, either by train or plane. Then you must travel to the Tyuratam railway station by car or train. Near its namesake village sits the town of Baikonur, which is a stone’s throw from the space-launch complex itself.

To enter this restricted-access town, you need a special pass. Both the town and the spaceport are leased to Russia, so Russian laws apply. If you have friends or relatives living in Baikonur, they can help you with the pass. This procedure requires application at least 10 days prior to your arrival, for those with Russian passports, or 55 days prior, if the passport was issued by another country. Otherwise you need assistance from a Baikonur tour operator.

Ultimately, you will have to approach a tourist agency authorized by Roscosmos (the Russian State Corporation for Space Activities) anyway, as it is unlikely that you made this journey just to see the obsolete post-Soviet town of Baikonur, where you can still see signs and advertising towers bearing its former name: Leninsk. The space complex and museum located within it are secure facilities, and no entry is allowed without a special escort. So, like it or not, you will not be able to travel from the town of Baikonur to Baikonur spaceport without a tour operator.

Prices for tours to the space complex start from $500. Economy-class trips include visiting the museum and watching a launch at a significant distance from the steppe, as opposed to standing two kilometers away from the launch pad. The more costly options include more features. For instance: the chance to visit press conferences, an astronauts’ farewell ceremony and a rocket delivery. Such a travel package will cost at least $3,000–$4,000.

If you ask me whether or not it is worth spending time and money going to Baikonur, as someone who has been there, I would say it definitely is. I still remember the sound of the rocket and the tears that welled in everyone’s eyes on the day of the spaceship launch. The noise from the huge white machine flying overhead, and the thought that the astronauts were racing away from earth-bound troubles to zero gravity, make a person envy those in spacesuits.

The spaceport museum is also a must-visit. The house where Yuri Gagarin slept before his flight is preserved there. Near the small building one can find an example of the legendary Buran space planes, which were the Soviet response to American shuttles. It is unique, as it is one of only three remaining combat ships.

Recently, Kazakhstan and Russia decided to develop tourism in Baikonur. Provincial Baikonur may be transformed into a small amusement park made of glass and concrete, with fake palm trees and screaming, flashing signs. This closed town could lose its one-of-a-kind magic, so, as was said in an old Soviet movie: “Hurry and see!”

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