Most people would know that the Soviets once led the space race, sending the first satellite into space and, in 1961, sending the first human into space. Both of these historic flights were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome which, since the Soviet Union broke up, is located in Kazakhstan.
Whilst the Cosmodrome is named after the Kazakh town of Baikonur it is actually 400 kilometres southwest of that town, closer to Tyuratam which is a railhead.
Now that the Soviet Union is no more, Baikonur is no longer the restricted area that it once was, and it is now possible to visit the Cosmodrome, with guided tours being relatively easy to arrange.
The Cosmodrome is still very active, and since NASA’s Space Shuttle program ceased it is now the only place from which vehicles are launched to service the International Space Station using both Soyuz and Progress craft to re-supply the station and return crew back to Earth.
Baikonur is both the worlds oldest and the largest space facility, although its history alone is well worth the effort of visiting the Cosmodrome.
Although Baikonur is in Kazakhstan it is staffed almost entirely by Russian personnel, and members of the Russian military provide security. There is some dispute between the two countries about the future of the spaceport, but that doesn’t seem to affect tourism.
The launch programme is worked out well in advance, and with planning you can arrange to be on site to witness an actual launch. Because Baikonur can be difficult for individual travellers to reach it, most people book on two to three day tours which leave from either Astana or Almaty, with flights, transfers, accommodation, some meals and sightseeing included in the price.
Apart from the possibility of attending an actual launch, one of the highlights is a visit to the spaceport museum, and Yuri Gagarin’s on-base cottage. Yuri Gagarin, of course, was the first human into space. When you visit the museum you realise, by today’s standards, just how primitive the equipment and technology was at the time.
Apart from the museum you also visit the parks and the monuments around the base as well as the memorial to deceased cosmonauts.
The Cosmodrome also boasts two airports, which are used for spaceport personnel and the cartage of specialist equipment, as well as the world’s largest industrial railway, which does connect to the Kazakhstan public railway.