Russian Space City Rusty but Still Essential

In this remote and rusting town on the barren steppes of Central Asia, the space race and the Sputnik era seem much more than a memory.

Rockets still pierce the heavens in a halo of smoke during launches, and engineers and military men still crack open bottles of vodka to celebrate a successful launch.

What has changed are the passengers.

Nowadays Baikonur embraces the world, from wealthy space tourists to the world's first Malaysian cosmonaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who blasted off for the international space station on Oct. 10.

• Click here to visit's Space Center.

The city itself is a rusting relic of the golden age of Russian rocketry, yet, if anything, its place in the space industry is heading toward expansion.

For at least four years after the space shuttle program ends in 2010, the U.S. will completely depend on Russia — and Baikonur — to send its crews to the international space station.

Facilities and equipment are workable but old. Remnants of demolished buildings and pieces of rusty metal dot the landscape along the roads to the launchpads.

Dozens of apartment blocks that were abandoned after the 1991 Soviet collapse stand in rows like tombstones, their windows bricked up.

The launch pad used this month was the same one that blasted Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961 to become the first man in space. Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, took off nearby in 1957.

Even the technology hasn't changed much. The Soyuz spacecraft designed in the mid-1960s is still in service, somewhat modified. It can only be used once, but costs just $25 million. The newest Endeavour space shuttle cost $2 billion, but is reusable.

Life and work in Baikonur and its cosmodrome are also pretty much what they were in the Soviet era.

The town of 70,000 — unbearably hot in summer, freezing cold in winter and dusty year round — is isolated by hundreds of miles of scrubland.

Baikonur, once one of the Soviet Union's most secret cities, is still closed to outsiders and surrounded by barbed wire. Armed soldiers at checkpoints guard dozens of launch pads, five tracking control centers and a missile test range.

The continuity is especially striking because the 1991 collapse left the cosmodrome stranded in what had become a foreign country, the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

"We did not know what country we belonged to, but we kept on launching rockets," said Sergei Kuzmin, a former military officer, now a city clerk.

Russia rents Baikonur from Kazakhstan for $115 million a year. The mayor is jointly appointed by the Russian and Kazakh presidents.

"We live under two governments, but unfortunately get only one salary," Kuzmin noted wryly as he walked the freshly renovated corridors of city hall.

As Russia's economy has recovered and oil prices swell, Moscow has begun spending on Baikonur again. The city also benefits from Russia's booming trade in commercial satellite launches and space tourism.

In April, Charles Simonyi, the U.S. billionaire who helped design Microsoft Word and Excel, became the world's fifth such tourist, spending $25 million to visit the space station.

So despite its Soviet character — or perhaps partly because of it — Baikonur remains a magnet for Russians and Kazakhs looking for a decent job.

Vadim Smirnov, an emergency services official, came in 2000 with his wife Yelena from the southern Russian town of Kapustin Yar.

Pushing his 2-year-old twins in a stroller near a Soyuz booster rocket installed as a monument, Smirnov remarked: "There still is socialism."

In Baikonur there's free healthcare, state jobs, and apartments still owned by the administration and reserved for those working for the city or the launch complex. After 20 years, workers get free apartments and land lots in Russia.

Busts and monuments of figures such as Gagarin and Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, dot the streets and parks.

Baikonur lies by the Syr Darya river, dangerously close to the Aral Sea.

Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, the sea has turned into a dust bowl of toxic salts because of massive Soviet irrigation projects. Winds carry caustic clouds of the stuff through Baikonur, poisoning the air.

Minerals in the water table kill anything bigger than a desert shrub. So trees have to be planted in massive concrete tubs of soil sunk into the ground.

Yet, Baikonur people feel sheltered from the ills of the big cities.

"Here, people speak the same language and are united by a common goal," said Lyubov Bryantseva, a spokeswoman for the city administration.

"There is no other place like Baikonur," said Alexei Tarasov, a 68-year-old colonel and trade union leader who works for the Federal Space Center, one of the Russian agencies that operate the cosmodrome.

He arrived in Baikonur in 1962 as a young army lieutenant. The place "felt like an oven," he recalled, but its residents enjoyed all the privileges the communist system could provide.

"Everything was top secret, but the town itself was amazing," said Tamara Tarasenko, 60, a doctor who moved here in 1971. "There were no bandits, no crime."

By the 1980s Baikonur's population approached 100,000. Despite strict regulations and constant vigilance by plainclothes KGB agents, the engineers and military officers in Baikonur still enjoyed a "certain liberalism" not tolerated elsewhere, said Bryantseva of the city administration.

The reason was Baikonur's importance for Soviet propaganda. This was where the Soviets launched spacecraft headed for the moon, Venus and Mars, as well as cosmonauts headed for earth orbit.

The center may also have played a military role, launching Soviet spy satellites. But no one will talk about that.

Outsiders are sometimes amazed at how efficient the experienced crew of the launch center is, in all weather.

"Rain or shine or sleet or snow don't matter," said Mark Bowman, deputy director of the NASA Human Space Flight Program at Baikonur.

The town is expected to remain the world's primary space gate for decades to come.

"We are not a provincial town that will drown in the desert," said Bryantseva.