Baikonur is the largest of three major Russian launch complexes, the
oldest space-launching facility, and the only one used for crewed launches.
The designations NIIP-5 and GIK-5 are used in official Soviet histories
when referring to Baikonur. It was also referred to as Tyuratam by both Soviet military staff and engineers and by US intelligence agencies.
Baikonur Cosmodrome, which since the breakup of the Soviet Union is actually
on foreign (i.e., non-Russian) soil, extends 85 km from north to south and
125 km from east to west – a territory as large as Moldova. As well
as dozens of launch pads, Baikonur hosts five tracking control centers,
nine tracking stations, and a 1,500-km rocket test range.
Baikonur Cosmodrome is located in a region of flat grasslands in the former
Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, northeast of the Aral Sea at 45.6° N,
Although typically not as active as Plesetsk,
this site is used for all Russian manned and planetary missions. Construction
of the secret missile site began in 1955 and it was from here that the first
artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and the
first manned spacecraft, Vostok 1, were launched.
All subsequent Russian manned missions, as well as geostationary, lunar,
planetary, and many ocean surveillance missions, have lifted off from Baikonur.
Until recently, its designation was intentionally misleading. The former
Soviet Union used the name and coordinates of a small mining town, Baikonur,
to describe its secret rocket complex, with the aim of concealing its true
location. In fact, the launch complex is about 370 km southwest of Baikonur
town, near the railway station and village of Tyuratam and close to Leninsk
city. However, in 1998, Leninsk city was renamed Baikonur city.
When the USSR collapsed, there were fears it would mean the
end for the cosmodrome too. But independent Kazakhstan agreed to lease the
site to Russia. That lease now extends until 2050. Moscow has been developing
Plesetsk in the Russian far north. But its location makes it unfit for most
commercial launches. Baikonur's facilities are now in regular demand for
commercial satellite launches and to supply the International
Space Station. Kazakhstan also has plans to launch its own satellites
from the complex and Russia and Kazakhstan together are developing a more
environmentally-friendly launch facility. Kazakhstan wants to reduce the
pollution from rocket fuel and debris which often falls on its territory.
Sources: NASA, BBC