Michael Voss returns from Kazakhstan after guiding our 2017 Beyond the Cosmodrome Group Tour, visiting Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's first and largest space exploration facility where Tim Peake returned to earth. Call 020 7666 1258 to register your interest in our 2018 departure.
As children many of us dream about travelling into space, but how close do we get? We watch ET and Star Wars, Haley’s Comet and Solar eclipses, but very few of us get the chance to even get close to the launch pad. With this in mind we arranged our inaugural tour to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s oldest and largest space port buried deep in the heart of south-western Kazakhstan.
After a couple of days in Almaty, the country’s former capital city (and home of the apple!) we flew to the city of Kyzylorda. A quick stop for dinner and we were headed in our bus across the steppe – a drive of three and a half hours (with a variety of interesting overtaking manouevures en route) without passing through a single town or village – to say this city is isolated would be something of an understatement. Just after midnight we pulled up outside the town’s checkpoint and our guide of the previous three days jumped off and said we’d be met by a local and a translator who would have our permits, and he then swiftly disappeared into the darkness – to get into Baikonur and the Cosmodrome, which is technically Russian territory (leased for another 40 years from Kazakhstan at $100 million per year) you need to apply for permits from Roscosmos (the Russian Space Agency) in advance. To get turned away at the door would have been slightly problematic.
Our guide and translator emerged from the darkness with our permits, and a show of passports eventually got us through and to the Centralnaya Hotel – a classic Soviet establishment of austere accommodations and surly check-in staff. But at least they had hot water.
In the morning we were met by our guide and local fixer – a classic Soviet Babushka! Having shown our passes to leave the town we drove around 30 minutes to the Cosmodrome itself and repeated the formalities of permits and passports before being handed a lanyard which granted our entry to the complex. Baikonur is vast with about 20 different launch sites and access being allowed to only 3 or 4 different sites. A launch had been scheduled and then cancelled at the last minute so we weren’t granted access to the hangar where the shuttle was stored but were met by a local worker and first taken to the launch pad where Yuri Gargarin had embarked on the first manned space launch. The trains which deliver the shuttle from the hangar to the launch pad were parked outside and we were treated to a detailed and extensive explanation of the entire process – right down to being shown the marks where the Cosmonauts stand to have their pictures taken before climbing aboard.
The guide was phenomenal – advising that to fox the Americans they had told the workers who built the facility that they were building a sports stadium! We visited the monument to the workers and astronauts before heading to the on-site museum (despite being on Kazakh territory only Russian roubles are accepted in the gift shop). The museum was incredibly comprehensive, charting the history of the Soviet (and now Russian) space programme plus the mood of international collaboration that has followed. There is also a decommissioned Bayan space shuttle which you can climb aboard and thus say that you have been aboard an actual spaceship.
After a visit to the cottage Gargarin stayed in prior to launch we returned to the city where the centrepiece is a Soyuz shuttle that was used for testing, and a tour around the local sights returned us to the hotel and an evening stroll around the open boulevards. I’m not sure what will become of the town after the lease expires and Russia’s new Cosmodrome in Vostochny is commissioned – the fear is that Baikonur will become something of a ghost-town – but it’s an incredible place to visit, both historic and fascinating and well worth the drive across the steppe and bureaucracy required to secure your permits.