updated 6/17/2006 8:45:02 PM ET 2006-06-18T00:45:02

Kazakhstan sent its first satellite into space Sunday, a step toward fulfilling the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic’s ambitions to join the elite club of space-exploring nations.

The Central Asian nation of 15 million is home to the world’s largest space center, the Baikonur cosmodrome.

It has been leasing the Soviet-built facility to Russia, but now Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev wants his nation to build its own space industry.

The Kazakh government’s ambition is fueled by its post-Soviet economic success, pumped up by oil-dollars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Nazarbayev at Baikonur to watch the early morning launch of KazSat 1 — a geostationary satellite designed to provide TV broadcast and communications for Kazakhstan, three other Central Asia nations — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan — and part of Russia.

The two leaders watched the launch from an observation platform about 2 miles from the launch pad. After the rocket’s fiery tail disappeared into the sky, which was just turning pink ahead of dawn, they left in a car without commenting.

The satellite, built by Russia’s Khrunichev design center and reported to be worth $100 million, was launched aboard a Russian Proton-K carrier rocket. The launch was initially scheduled for December 2005 but was postponed due to technical problems.

“Everything went according to plan and it gives us hope that the work of the first Kazakh satellite will be successful as well,” said Igor Panarin, a spokesman for the Russian space agency. “It is a victory for both Russia and Kazakhstan.”

“It is a great step forward in the development of the domestic space industry and for Kazakhstan, it means it has become a space nation,” Panarin added, noting that the nation had now joined the elite club of about 30 such countries.

Kazakhstan is planning space exploration missions and has reached an agreement with Russia to be part of all of Russia’s projects involving Baikonur, said Serik Turzhanov, who heads the national space agency, Kazkosmos.

Set in the isolated western steppes of Kazakhstan, Baikonur was the scene of the historic launches of the first satellite to orbit the Earth and pioneer cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Today it’s Russia’s main launch site for manned space flights.

Nazarbayev has instructed his government to make development of the space industry a strategic goal and it is drafting a national space program up to 2020.

The ambitious plan includes projects to create Kazakhstan’s own design bureau with assembly and testing facilities that would build small satellites weighing from 175-350 pounds.

There are plans to follow KazSat 1 with KazSat 2 and KazSat 3 and several scientific satellites that would be able to predict earthquakes and are equipped with remote sensing devices.

The plans also include developing a capacity to provide satellite launch services to other nations, according to Turzhanov.

Kazkosmos also intends to built a control center in the capital Astana that would monitor all launches from Baikonur and another center on the basis of the former Soviet Sary Shagan missile test site that would monitor satellites that fly over Kazakh territory.

The Kazakhs are also forming their own squad of cosmonauts, who have been training for a few years at the Russian cosmonaut training center.

Kazakhstan and Russia have also agreed to jointly develop a new launch complex for the more environmentally friendly Angara vehicle, an alternative to the Soyuz booster now in use, which uses poisonous fuel.

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