Photographers' Blog

Baikonur: A fusion of time and tradition

June 16, 2011

The first time I saw the Soyuz rocket, I could not believe that this “construction” could take people into space. Even ten years later, after covering many launches, it still surprises me the level of determination with which people wanted to go into space that led to the building of a huge complex called the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Every visit I am overcome with mixed feelings. On one hand, even 50 years after the first manned space flight, space remains a sphere of high technology and garners special attention. But the storm of the Soviet Union’s collapse left its indelible mark on the map of the spaceport. Abandoned and rusting construction, giant structures and mechanisms are silent witnesses of the space complex’s era of glory. Nostalgia resonates in every story about the history of Baikonur. Space exploration has never been a simple technological development. Everyone who served personally conquered space and the service is overgrown with tradition cherished to this day. There is no policy or ideology in it. It is rather a particular style of the Soviet, now Russian, cosmonautics. Simple and quick solutions were chosen in the race for supremacy in space. Sometimes it seems to me that there is no nanotechnology that can force these cherished orthodox methods to be abandoned.

Only here is the giant rocket assembly hangar with precious technology cleaned with the help of a simple handmade swab; exciting a creative impulse in approaching photographers.

A story at a museum about a lead pencil that Soviet cosmonauts used in space, against the complicated orbital pens invented for zero gravity in the United States, elicits special pride. At Baikonur, industrial technology is closely intertwined with romance, nostalgia and even superstition.

On October 24, 1960, an accident with missile R-16 claimed many specialist’s lives. On October 24, 1963 another accident occurred this time with rocket P-9. Now October 24 is a day off at Baikonur.

Since the days of chief designer Korolev, rockets are always rolled out to a launch pad at 0700 regardless of the weather and the season.

The crew always watch the movie “White Sun of the Desert” one day before the launch. On the launch day, the crew depart from the hotel for a final 6 hour pre-launch preparation with an accompaniment of the same song.

Nevertheless, time goes on, even if sometimes it feels like that it has stopped over at the spaceport. Life brings new traditions. Now, an Orthodox priest blesses the Soyuz spacecraft set up on its launch pad. This was hard to imagine during the Soviet period. Recently, the ceremony has become quite a public and widely covered by the press.

Another quite modern tradition began when the Roscosmos (Russian Space Agency) announced a children’s competition to draw the mission patch. The contest winner gets a trip to a crew launch as a prize. I imagine the winning child will grow up with a space dream.

After covering many launches at Baikonur, I have a dream as well. I want to watch the launch! I find a camera exposure is a perfect filter for emotions. Also, editing pictures at night in the desert requires a lot of attention. I’ve photographed many space ships and provided a glimpse to our readers. But I have not experienced the delight of my first start. I have only heard a rocket’s voice and it is incredibly fascinating. My colleague, his first time seeing how the Soyuz pierces the sky with three humans on board, burst with emotion and shouted: “This is ……..!“ Well, Russian language is rich with informal expressions. His cry of joy spread across the world… by the live broadcast camera standing next to him.

The Soyuz TMA-02M launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome, June 8, 2011. from Shamil Zhumatov on Vimeo.

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Shamil Zhumatov has provided a shallow report. Not a word about Kazakhstan, which actually owns the Baikonur. But, he has marvelled too much before the doomed Russian scientific programmes.

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