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Baikonur Cosmodrome
45.9 N 63.3 E, TYURATAM

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Overview, Supporting Facilities and Launch Vehicles of the

Soviet Space Program *


1. Prepared by the late Charles S. Sheldon II and Geoffrey E. Perry M.B.E. Dr. Sheldon was the Senior Specialist in Space and Transportation Technology, Mr. Perry is a Senior Teacher at Kettering Boys School, England, and the leader of the Kettering Group of amateur satellite observers.


The Soviet Union has three collections of space launch pads, just as does the United States. Curiously, even the functions of these three locations have a similarity, which will be detailed in the sections to follow.


The largest and most versatile of the Soviet launch sites is near the rail stop village of Tyuratam in Kazakhstan at about 45.6 N. latitude, 63.4 E. longitude. The Russians call it the Baykonur Cosmodrome, although it is about 370 kilometers southwest of the station stop of that name on quite a different railway line. It originally may have been thought that by giving contradictory information about the cosmodrome, the Russians would maintain some element

of doubt in the Western world, since the town of Baykonur is on the correct ground trace of the early Soviet flights which were at 65 inclination. To this day the Russians pinpoint the launch pad for manned flights as being at 47.3 N. and 65.5 E. which is patently false in light of conclusive public evidence of initial revolution ground traces and known launch times. Presumably based upon Soviet data, the NASA press kit for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project lists the launch site as being at 47.8 N. and 66 E. This does not square with NASA Landsat photographs and the visits and descriptions supplied by NASA visitors to this launch site. (4)

Tyuratam was first accurately placed in public announcements by the optical studies of Prof. Tadao Takenouchi in December 1957, following his observations of Sputnik 1 and 2. (5) The American trade press continued for some years to report the launch site as being in European Russia, until the Russians themselves announced it was in Kazakhstan (albeit at false coordinates, at the time of the Gagarin flight in 1961).

Tyuratam was the site from which the first Soviet ICBM's were fired, all the early Sputniks, all manned flights, all lunar and planetary flights, the earlier communications satellites, all the fractional orbit bombardment system (FOBS) and military inspector flights. It is also the area from which all heavy payloads put up by the Proton "D" type launch vehicle. Presumably, the same site selection reasons recommended Tyuratam as the logical place for the launch of the largest Soviet launch vehicle still under development.

In effect, Tyuratam is the Kennedy Space Center ( Eastern Test Range) of the Soviet space program. The first good look at the immediate launch site of the standard launch vehicle was provided by a 1967 movie giving an historical review of the Soviet program during the previous 10 years. Those fairly sweeping panoramic views fit consistently with the carefully cropped or pointed views which had been released piecemeal in previous years. Earlier the Russians had disclosed that the historical marker for Sputnik 1 was beside the pad used for manned launches, one more factor confirming the long term use of both the same pad and the same first stage for missions from Sputnik 1 through Soyuz 19, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) flight. In the fall of 1979, a photograph of the original launch pad, taken from a U-2 during 1959, featured in an exhibition mounted in the National Air and Space Museum's Flight and Arts Gallery under the title "Our Beautiful Earth: The View from Air and Space." (6)

For a long time no outsider could get to the launch site. President De Gaulle was taken there in June 1966 to see the launch of the first acknowledged weather satellite (Kosmos 122), accompanied only by his personal physician. In 1970, President Pompidou saw the launch of a military observation satellite (Kosmos 368) which carried a supplemental scientific payload. Finally, in connection with the upcoming ASTP flight, three parties of American astronauts and technicians were flown in at night, put up in a hotel, driven to the launch pad, and then were returned to their hotel for another night flight out. In the meantime, low resolution pictures made public by NASA routinely to anyone interested showed that the Landsat 1 views of the Tyuratam area were covered with roads, railway tracks, and other signs of human activities including almost certainly assembly buildings and launch pads which spread over a distance of about 135 by 90 kilometers or more. Also, the NASA people flying at night saw a scattering of electric lights from their aircraft that spread over distances of about this amount. At the day of the launch, the American Ambassador, the science attache, and Willis Shapley of NASA headquarters were flown there in daylight hours for the launch, but did not see too much from the air. People did report that the little railway stop of Tyuratam these days, is completely overwhelmed by the adjacent city of Leninsk, of perhaps 50,000 people. This city has not been shown in public Soviet at least, and seems to owe its existence to the growing space activity. More recent Landsat imagery suggests that additional development at either extremely has increased the east-west dimension to nearer 150 km. With launch pads for many different launch vehicles widely scattered over the area, it is not possible to speak of a single closely defined latitude and longitude as defining the site, or to know what all the launch facilities look like. The original "A" class standard launch vehicle is carried horizontally on railway flat cars to the launch pad, tilted up, to sit on a stand over a large flame deflector pit. The base of the rocket in the upright position is well below the level of the railways tracks which deliver the rocket. There is a many plat formed service tower which is tilted away from the vehicle some time before launch, and shorter supports for the first stage which retract away after ignition when thrust reaches a certain level. Tall adjacent lightweight structures are described as carrying lightning rods to minimize electrical interference with the launch equipment and vehicle, and perhaps to carry television or motion picture equipment.

At the time of ASTP the Soviet Union stressed their intention to have a backup Soyuz spacecraft, launcher and crew ready and waiting on a separate pad to ensure their ability to honor their commitment to launch, should a major problem prevent the launching of the prime crew. The distance between the two pads was said to be about 30 km. A study of official Soviet photographs of various launches enabled Nicholas Johnson to distinguish major differences between the two pads by considering the positioning of the lightning conductor towers, nearby buildings, and the second pad having the corners above the flame pit chamfered rather than right-angled. (7) Figure 2a and 2b, based on drawings by Richard Escarcega, and reproduced with permission of the British Interplanetary Society, show these differences.

One gains the impression that tracking and guidance of Soviet space vehicles during the launch phase involve fixed radio, radar, and/or optical stations down range. This is because repetitive flights of a given launch vehicle tend to be flown at almost exactly the same orbital inclinations. To achieve the right azimuth for launch, the whole vehicle assembly and platform are rotated to the required compass heading. When two very similar yet different flight inclinations are achieved using different launch vehicles and other evidence supports the judgment, one receives the impression the difference in launch vehicle is also matched by using a different launch pad, and as a result of choice of azimuth to satisfy guidance- and range-safety constraints, the resulting orbit has a slightly different inclination.

Pictures in movies as well as the visits of NASA people show that the assembly of vehicles and the attachment of payloads occurs in special assembly buildings. Checkout of spacecraft is done in the vertical position. Mating of spacecraft and launch vehicles is done horizontally.

Although only one launch pad in a vast cosmodrome has been opened to limited inspection, the Landsat pictures of the whole area confirm the general impression that this is open steppe country, relatively flat and only slightly rolling. There is no basis to the rumors of the early days that Soviet launches were conducted by winged, recoverable booster stages which ran on a track up a mountainside before becoming airborne.

Other Landsat pictures suggest there is a general area in which spent first stages impact on the steppe, and informally Russians in the program have suggested they are able to salvage for reuse some components from this "bone yard.(8)

A Soviet account of the Baykonur Cosmodrome described the assembly-test building used for the Soyuz. The building is called the MIK (Montazhno Ispytatel'nyy Korpus). The article said that a Soyuz is first given a full checkout in the MIK, and then again on the pad. In the MIK, the separate modules are tested in vacuum chambers, including the firing of maneuvering engines. After the individual modules are tested, they are assembled to create the whole vehicle and returned to the vacuum chamber for further checkout. Then they are also placed in an anechoic chamber to test the radio compatibility of the assembled ship with its communications system. (9)

Another account of the Tyuratam complex was carried by Spaceflight. Leninsk was identified as the long referenced " Rocket City" of Soviet accounts, about 2,090 kilometers southeast of Moscow on the main Moscow-Tashkent railway line, with Tyuratam the original village railway stop. The area was described as rolling but mostly flat country, with complex irrigation systems and some tall trees planted. The climate is very extreme summer and winter. It is said to be about 32 kilometers from Leninsk to the ASTP launch pad, and about 1.6 kilometers from the MIK to the pad, using the standard Soviet 5-foot gage railway track to join the two points. The same account said there was a test of the G-l-e. (10)

By studying the Landsat images referred to above and comparing them with large-scale maps of the areas in question, Charles P. Vick has prepared detailed maps of the three Soviet cosmodromes and the launch site in the People's Republic of China for the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space Technology. (11) A version of his map of the Tyuratam area is given in figure 3. There is no indication of the large new runway construction reported to have been detected by U.S. reconnaissance spacecraft in 1978, which Aviation Week & Space Technology suggested was being built for the horizontal landing of a reusable winged manned spacecraft under development as the first phase of a Soviet space shuttle program, unless it is the linear feature running from northwest to southeast and terminating near the probable G-vehicle pad.(12) Landsat pictures obtained in 1980 and 1981 indicate that a second linear feature, crossing "M" in figure 3 at right angles, has been paved to the northeast of "M" since 1979. As this is more nearly in line with the launch azimuth, it might eventually prove to be the runway.


4. Aviation Week, New York , Jan. 14, 1974 , pp. 12-13, pictures.

5. Takenouchi, Tadao. A Launch Site in the Kizil Kum Desert ? Tokyo , Kagaku Asahi, February 1958, pp. 40-48 (in Japanese); reported earlier in press dispatches.

6.Air and Space, vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 6-7, Nov.-Dec. 1979, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

7. Johnson Nicholas L. The Baikonur SS-6 Space Launch Facilities, Spaceflight, 23, pp. 109-116, 1981.

8. Aviation Week, New York , Feb. 18, 1974 , p. 17, pictures of drop area.

9. Pravda, Moscow , May 25, 1975 , pp. 1, 2.

10. Spaceflight, London , Oct. 11, 1975 , p. 368.

11. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space Technology, pp. 39-44, Salamander Books Ltd., London , 1981.

12. Washington Roundup, Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 110, No. 2, p. 11, Jan. 8, 1979.


1. This record is of launch "successes" as defined elsewhere in this study; that is, any

flight which reached at least one Earth orbit, or which escaped from Earth, either to lunar distance, or to enter solar orbit.

2. Not all launch sites have been announced by the launching country, but most

flights can quickly be identified by repetitive use of certain orbital locations. A plot of the ground traces of the "zero revolution" (the initial part of the flight before the Equator is first crossed) will disclose a nodal point which will define that a launch pad is near a certain spot on the surface of the Earth. In occasional instances where a given inclination for an orbit of unknown origin could have come from more than one launch site can still be pinned down by plotting the zero revolution orbital ground trace to observe which launch site falls on this path. In the case of escape missions and geostationary missions, these are already known to have come exclusively from only a few sites ( Cape Canaveral, Tyuratam, Tanegashima, and soon Kourou).

3. The names of launch sites listed are in a sense a kind of shorthand. Plesetsk has never been precisely identified by the U.S.S.R., which refers generally to a northern cosmodrome. The nodal point of the ground traces is near the city of Plesetsk. Tyuratam is officially called the Baykonur Cosmodrome, and the officially listed launch coordinates are several hundred kilometers northwest of the nodal point which is near the railway stop of Tyuratam, and now the growing space city of Leninsk. Vandenberg is the name of an air force base in California near Lompoc, and now expanded to include additional pads at Point Arguello. Cape Canaveral refers to the collection of pads both on the Cape and on nearby Merritt Island, most administered by the Kennedy Space Center. Kapustin Yar is the town nearest the nodal point of launches from a site the U.S.S.R. calls Volga Station. Wallops Island is a NASA site on the Delmarva Peninsula. Uchinoura is a site on Kagoshima Bay, Kyushu. Shuang Cheng Zi is the current spelling of what was Shuang Cheng Tzu in Gansu (formerly Kansu) province. The Indian Ocean Platform also carries the designator San Marco and was constructed by Italy just outside the territorial waters of Kenya. Kourou is in French Guiana. Tanegashima is an island at the northern end of the Ryukyu chain. Hammaguir was the former French site in southern Algeria, later stopped and moved to Kourou. Woomera is in south Australia. Sriharikota is near Madras.

4. The count of launches matches other tables of this study and corresponds to the numbers recorded by COSPAR, the Committee on Space, of ICSU, the International Council of Scientific Unions.

SOURCES.—These have been derived as explained above, and as carried in (updated) logs of studies published by either the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, or the House Committee on Science and Technology, derived from United Nations registers, Goddard Satellite Situation Reports, and the logs of the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2016 19:05:16 ZULU