3, 2, 1… liftoff!

At last! Another dream of mine has come true – to see a spaceship take off! Hurray!

Last week it left Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and by the weekend it had already reached the International Space Station and docked. The crew’s made up of two Russians and one American – which perhaps explains why around town and in our hotel much American-accented English was to be heard.

We watched the liftoff from about two kilometers away, which might seem a long way off. But it isn’t. This isn’t U2 playing a stadium where being at the back is almost a waste of time and money… This is the Baikonur experience. The power generated by the massive rocket engines shook everything around so much it felt like an earthquake was occurring at the same time as the liftoff. Rather unnerving.

Baikonur Space Launch CenterThe spike on the top means the ship’s manned; if it was without one, it would mean no crew – an unmanned remote-controlled cargo mission

The steppe all around was lit up bright orange too for several seconds. Amazing! Intense! But sadly so short-lived. Just minutes later the Soyuz (which incidentally means ‘Union’, no doubt of the Soviet kind :) was already out of sight. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend everyone to experience a spaceship launch. Next time I want to see a Proton take off. That rocket is more powerful and they say it needs to be witnessed by day (and I’m guessing a bit further away).

When rockets aren’t taking off from the cosmodrome, your attention naturally falls on the Kazakh surroundings around Baikonur – and they’re pretty bleak. Barren yellow steppe desert, no green vegetation whatsoever… thoroughly lifeless flatness. At least now. In a few weeks everything will blossom and be fragrant, but now it’s pure dismalness and sterile melancholy. What makes it worse are the abandoned bits of old equipment and scraps of iron strewn all over the place, plus seemingly disused and thoroughly unsightly old hangars.

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch Center

But enough of the negative. Now for some positive…

There are two very interesting cosmonaut museums (one in town, one at the cosmodrome); there’s Gagarin’s house at the cosmodrome, where he stayed before and after his historic mission; there’s the space college… and all sorts of other fascinating stuff – all of it, naturally, simply cosmic!

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch CenterWhat a female crew of a descending Proton module would look like. Not. It turned out (in tests) that at liftoff the rocket gives a G-force that’s just too much for humans to take. Piloted launches of a Proton have thus never taken place.

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch CenterBuran from the outside…

Baikonur Space Launch Center…and from inside

Baikonur Space Launch CenterSeen Gravity yet?

Baikonur Space Launch CenterAnd the view from underneath the Buran

Baikonur Space Launch CenterGagarin’s house

Baikonur Space Launch Center…And inside Yuri Alexeyevich’s house. The red inscription reads ‘let’s go!’ Humble words famously uttered before his un-humble historic lift-off in 1961

Baikonur Space Launch CenterThe inevitable patterned rug…

Baikonur Space Launch Center…The inevitable portrait

Baikonur Space Launch CenterEpochal cosmodrome journal diary entry: ‘Man in space!!! Hurray!!!’

Baikonur Space Launch CenterYou might not believe me, but this is a computer. Without it there’d have been no Gagarin in space

Baikonur Space Launch CenterLaunch controls

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch CenterBaikonur layout model

Baikonur Space Launch CenterAssembly hangar

Baikonur Space Launch CenterThe Energia-Buran platform. We saw the Soyuz launch from near it

Some pics from the town:

Baikonur Space Launch CenterGuess who?

Baikonur Space Launch CenterJunk in the trunk

Baikonur Space Launch CenterA close-up of the crew-carrying pod at the tip

Baikonur Space Launch CenterNo comment!

Baikonur Space Launch CenterThe space school

Baikonur Space Launch CenterAlmost all the mock-ups here actually fly, including the pencils, carrots…

Baikonur Space Launch Center…and acorns!

Baikonur Space Launch CenterReal-world C3PO and R2D2

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch CenterTold you they flew!

Baikonur Space Launch CenterBuran pilot’s chair

And more kit, all genuine, some of it having been in space:

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch CenterWhen you see it… :)

Baikonur Space Launch Center

Baikonur Space Launch CenterA paper plane ticket! Haven’t felt one of these in my hands for a while. I particularly liked who’s given as the carrier: ‘YOU’!!

The rest of the photos are here.

A great, memorable trip. Highly recommended!

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Susannah Woolmer

A fascinating read! And great pics, as always

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Hi, how is possible to visit Baykonur? You managed by yourself or by tourist guide? Thanks

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Hi! There are many tourist agencies offering trips to Baykonur. For example: http://starcity-tours.com/baikonur/ BTW, the next launch is scheduled for Sep 1! Hurry up! :)

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