Tim Peake to be launched from the cradle of manned space flight

Tim Peake to be launched from the cradle of manned space flight

Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's oldest & largest space launch facility, is a sprawling collection of hangars, gantries, pylons & railway tracks covering an area the size of a small country.

Yet all of its 3,000 square miles are simply lost in the vast, bleak wilderness of Kazakhstan's desert steppe.

That of course was just what the Soviet-era architects of the complex wanted – somewhere far away from prying eyes where they could test their intercontinental ballistic missiles.

For decades after its establishment in 1955, Baikonur's primary function was the top secret development of ICBMs, the devastating weapons of nuclear mass destruction that once were aimed at cities in the US & UK.

Space exploration was an off-shoot of that programme, based around the same rocket technology.

Even the origins of the name, Baikonur, are cloaked in secrecy. According to one unconfirmed theory it was deliberately chosen to misdirect Western attention to a small mining town of the same name some 200 miles away.

There were other reasons for placing Scientific Test Range number 5 (NIIP-5), as it was officially known, on the flat, arid scrubland plains that stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions.

The remote location, next to the tiny rail-head village of Tyuratam, was ideal for rocket launches which are too inherently dangerous to carry out over densely populated areas. For the same reason, all Nasa launches take place on coasts or islands.

In addition, early Soviet communication systems needed flat ground over which uninterrupted signals could be sent for hundreds of kilometres.

It was moreover advantageous for rockets to blast off from a vantage point as near as possible to the equator, where the Earth spins faster than it does further north or south.

Eventually a flourishing new city appeared to service the space activities. Formerly known as Leninsk, it was renamed Baikonur by President Boris Yeltsin in 1995.

Dozens of launch pads & missile silos are scattered across the Cosmodrome, many of them now abandoned. They include the derelict facilities built for the Soviet Union's stillborn space shuttle project, Buran.

Just one of the space planes – virtually a carbon copy of its American counterpart – was launched on an unmanned test flight from the complex in 1988. Three years after the Soviet Union collapsed & in 1993 the programme was officially cancelled.

A mock-up of one of the craft is now housed in the Cosmodrome Museum, & its landing strip is still used to fly in cargo deliveries & occasional visitors.

The most famous launch pad is the original one built at Baikonur for the R-7, the world's first ICBM.

It was from Site 1 that Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite, was launched on October 4 1957 on a modified R-7 & began the space race.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, made history by rocketing into orbit from the same site in 1961. Two years after he was followed by the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, again from Site 1.

Up until the early 1980s Baikonur served both as the centre of the Soviet space programme & as a base for testing & deploying ICBMs.

At various times operational ICBMs, including SS-18 "city busters" were housed in silos on the complex, according to Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a respected non-profit organisation that promotes global security.

No missiles were deployed at the facility after 1983, although it continued to operate as a military research base until 1992.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Cosmodrome continued to be controlled by Russia under a leasing arrangement with Kazakhstan.

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