The Big Picture: Baikonur

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2008 10:16 am

The more images I see posted at The Big Picture — the Boston Globe’s online high-res photography feature — the more I am dazzled by it. Last week, it had stunning pictures about the Baikonur Cosmodrome facility in Kazakhstan, the Russian launch facility.

The way things are looking, once the Shuttle retires, there will be a gap of several years before the next man-rated US rocket will fly, so we will rely heavily on the Russians for human access to the space. These images give us a glimpse into that ability. My favorite image in The Big Picture set shows a Proton-M rocket being transported to the launch facility, but it’s copyrighted and I can’t use it here. However, a next-best one shows a Soyuz TMA-3 in similar repose.

A Russian Soyuz TMA-3 rocket on its way to launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome

It’s been quite some time since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the rocket itself, as well as the layout and composition of this picture — even with the uniformed man walking alongside down and to the right — give this one a quintessential Soviet feel to it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space

Comments (30)

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  1. Links and Video of the Week (2008/40) :: cimddwc | October 5, 2008
  1. MacRat

    The US could always get a lift from the Chinese. All Russian hardware anyway, right?

  2. I think my favourite is #14. I also love the final picture in that series. Guess who received the roses?

  3. Todd W.

    Wow. I hadn’t really considered just how cramped the Soyuz crew space is. Makes sense, I guess.

  4. The photos of Baikonur make a great juxtaposition with the photos of the launch site for Space X.

  5. I also love the final picture in that series. Guess who received the roses?

    All three taikonauts got the flowers when they landed a couple of days ago.

  6. changcho

    The Souz is a very well designed launch vehicle- it has been modified over the years, but the core of it dates back to the early Soviet space program. In fact, its first stage is a direct descendant of the R7, which is the rocket that put Sputnik in orbit in ’57.

  7. In completely OT news an astronomer, Penny Sackett, has been named Australia’s chief scientist.
    “The Federal Government announced yesterday it had appointed the American-born astronomer as Australia’s chief scientist and was upgrading the post to a full-time position.”

  8. Is it just me, or does anyone else marvel at the ruggedness and functionality of these really old designs? In my work on missiles and other USAF Programs, I am always amazed that a design from the 50’s has a better reliability than all the new digital stuff we are making now. Same could be said for the Russian stuff.

  9. GloomyGus

    Great pictures, but I have a bad feeling about this. We can argue that the Soviet Union fell, or we can argue that it simply went into hibernation and is now rousing itself once more to something no more palatable. Mr. Putin, a great admirer of the late Soviet Union, is not our friend and has shown a willingness to subsume everything in the pursuit of power for Greater Russia, or whatever it is calling itself these days. Of course, this may work out and as we join hands in this time of crisis to reach for the heavens, the bad days will be left behind as science l march forward triumphantly. Just as likely, however, and perhaps even more so, is that Mr. Putin will use this near monopoly of access for maximum leverage and will do everything he can to make this country pay dearly for NASA’s blunders.

  10. GloomyGus

    Sorry, that should have read: “as science marches” not “as science 1 march” that the fingers originally danced out.

  11. madge

    You gotta say when Russia builds it builds to last. Soyuz has been the workhorse of the space programme. Great pix

  12. GloomyGus said: “We can argue that the Soviet Union fell”
    Or we could just take in the pretty pictures.

  13. When the Soviet Union collapsed I initially thought that was it for their space program. But not they’ve gone from strength to strength. I suppose it is a bit like the apocryphal story of the expensive NASA designed zero g pen and the Russian solution being a pencil.

  14. Elmar_M

    Shane, please forgive me, but you got two things wrong:
    1. I think you are mixing up the russian cosmonauts with the chinese Taikonauts?
    2. Both were using pencils at first, but pencils need to be sharpened every now and then and the sharpening as well the normal use produces particles in the air, which you want to avoid in a zero gravity environment. Also the pen was not developed under a government contract, but independendly. The russians meanwhile use a simillar pen, to be best of my knowledge.
    Like all politicians Putin is a child of its time, just like the US had a radicalization of their politics in the last 8 years as well. Putin became president because Jelzin was weak and let things slide. Russia is waaay to big and almost impossible to govern. Under Jelzin the mafia was everywhere and people were fleeing to the West (e.g. my country)in order to escape mafia terror and corrupt local politicians. I personally know people like that. I dont know whether things improved with Putin though. There still seems a lot of corruption in Russia up to this day. Lets just hope that future elections make things better in both Russia (and the US too).

  15. Elmar_M, 1. I meant it appears that only the female cosmonaut received the flowers whereas all the taikonauts got flowers – I saw a video of the Chinese landing yesterday.
    2. You’re probably right about the pen/pencil story. I thought the story was apocryphal, an urban legend.

  16. Algirdas

    In photo #11 (the one that is shown minimized here on BA site) there appears to be a space shuttle of some sort in the background. Must be an old russian Buran in its final parking spot (I seem to recall some pictures of it from some other website – elements have taken their toll, the spacecraft didn’t look in usable condition).

  17. Algirdas

    Well, now that I learned to read the captions over at Boston Globe’s site – they say it is a mockup, not the actual Buran. Too bad.

    The pictures I saw before are at “English Russia” site, but they appear to be of the same mockup. Wikipedia says that the actual spacecraft has been destroyed.

  18. Donnie B.

    Did anybody else notice the Buran in the background of the embedded picture? (The caption at the Globe site says it’s a mockup.)

    Wow, not a lot of legroom in that Soyuz capsule! It looks like you’re almost in a fetal position when launched.

  19. Donnie B.

    Dang, Algirdas beat me to my comment.

    Didn’t the actual Buran end up in a park somewhere? Or am I thinking of a different Soviet vehicle — like their SST maybe?

    Remind me to ask Jay Windley about the engine configuration on that launch vehicle. It looks like the 20 main engines are fixed, and only the smaller engines are gimbaled. I wonder if this makes the control algorithms simpler, or more complex.

  20. Elmar_M

    Yeah, the buran was a political decision by the Soviet union, they had to counter the US Shuttle somehow.
    They had other and IMHO better designs that they did not use in the end.

  21. Leon

    Didn’t the actual Buran end up in a park somewhere? Or am I thinking of a different Soviet vehicle — like their SST maybe?

    Not the shuttle itself, but one of the testing modules did end up as an attraction in Gorki Park:

  22. Wayne

    IIRC, the only flown Buran was destroyed in a hanger roof collapse a few years ago. Too bad they never put it in a museum.

  23. JB of Brisbane

    I seem to remember parts of an unused N-1 launcher – the Soviet moon-rocket comparable to the Saturn V – were erected as park “furniture” in the town where the Baikonur workers live. Someone might like to flesh this out a bit.

  24. justcorbly


    It irks me when people blame “NASA’s blunders” for things like the upcoming Shuttle gap. It is not NASA’s fault that the Shuttle is retiring five years before Ares flies Blame Bush for that. He gave NASA additional tasking — return to the Moon and prepare for Mars — with no increase in budget. The money had to come from somewhere. If it wasn’t the Shuttle getting the chop, it might have the robotic planetary exploratin program. If you don’t want the gap, call Washington and tell them to send more money to NASA.


    I may be wrong, but I do not believe Russia has developed any fundamentally new vehicles or spacecraft since the fall of the USSR. They have continued to refine hardware inherited from the Soviets, often with NASA money and assistance, but the Soyuz vehicle and capsule seen in these photos could be seen 25 years ago.

    The Buran:

    If memory serves, one vehicle flew on one unpiloted one-orbit flight before the program was cancelled.

  25. Andy Craig

    You’d think by now they would have cleared out all the old Buran stuff, particularly since they obviously aren’t bothering to take care of it or anything.

    Maybe they’re just not as concerned as NASA with having a photogenic launch site.

  26. KVT

    You know politics and people’s personal beliefs of Russia aside, you gotta admit that the Soviet program created a lot of firsts. Aside from the first satellite, animal, man, and woman in space there were plenty of other notable firsts. But more importantly, the Soviets pioneered long term space travel and the use of space as a place of research with the Salyut space stations (of which there were 6, I believe) and subsequently Mir (which served the USSR, Russia, and the US for 10 years). Meanwhile the Proton launch vehicle is one of the most reliable in the world today. And Soyuz and its sister craft, the robotic Progress, not only launched the more astronauts than any other craft but helped keep the ISS going while the shuttles were grounded after Discovery.

    I guess I’m just saying that you gotta give the Russians credit for doing all of this without all the niceties that NASA has…like money : P

  27. Ray


    A lot of the older tech stuff was way over-engineered in the days when sliderules and simple computers were the rule.

    For instance, the 707s that my unit flies were designed in the 50s and built in the 60s. Heavy for their size, but they never break.

  28. Aleksandar

    Buran was a sad story. Engineers created a dozen better proposals, but the party leadership ordered a system as close to US space shuttle as possible, to prevent any rumors and PR stories about Soviet hardware being inferior coming from them adopting some other system.

    But they still managed to do it much better by making Energia the launch vehicle and Buran just the payload. Zenith/Energia combos and derivations could have been used in configurations with payload capacities from 10 tons to 150 tons. Using similar hardware for all your launchers would have eventually cut down the price, and they had plans for first stage and boosters reusability.

  29. You know, IANAL, but if your site doesn’t qualify for an education-based “Fair-Use” exemption under copyright law, I don’t know what does. Go ahead and post whatever picture you want — even if it is copyrighted, the worst they can do at first is just ask you to take it down.


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