Image: Baikonur ceremony
Sergey Ponomarev  /  AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev walk behind two high-stepping members of an honor guard carrying a wreath during ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
updated 6/2/2005 12:34:07 PM ET 2005-06-02T16:34:07

The presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan celebrated the 50th anniversary Thursday of the Baikonur Cosmodrome — a sprawling and well-worn gateway to the heavens that launched Sputnik and the first cosmonaut, as well as current missions to the international space station.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, toured an assembly and testing plant on the Soviet-built site on the isolated steppes of western Kazakhstan.

Initially designed as a testing ground for a top-secret Soviet ballistic missile program, Baikonur was a key site in Moscow’s space race with the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and saw many historic firsts in exploration.

Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth, blasted off from here in 1957, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was launched from Baikonur in 1961.

Kazakhstan inherited the cosmodrome after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia now uses Baikonur, its sole launch site for manned space missions, under a lease agreement.

In the past two years, Baikonur has been the only gateway to the international space station since the U.S. space shuttle fleet was grounded after Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Earthly matters also addressed
Aside from the ceremonial tour, the two leaders were scheduled to hold one-on-one talks, but their contents were not disclosed.

Putin’s trip is his first visit to Central Asia after the bloody suppression of a revolt last month in neighboring Uzbekistan. The Uzbek opposition and rights groups say hundreds of civilians died when troops opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan, while the government put the death toll at 173.

The violence in Uzbekistan came less than two months after a popular uprising in neighboring Kyrgyzstan that ousted the authoritarian leader there.

Nazarbayev, also accused of authoritarianism, has been increasingly jittery. Russia has backed Central Asia’s undemocratic regimes in a bid to preserve its influence in the strategically located energy-rich region.

New launch complex planned
Shortly after their arrival at Baikonur, Putin and Nazarbayev visited a plant where Proton rockets and satellites are assembled, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. They were also to meet with veterans of space exploration.

They were also to lay the foundation stone of a new joint Russian-Kazakh launch complex, Baiterek, for the more environmentally friendly Angara vehicle. The Angara is meant to be an alternative to Russian boosters now in use, some of which use poisonous fuel and litter the countryside with the debris of burned-out rocket stages.

The $400 million complex is expected to be completed in 2008-09.

The Baiterek project is seen as the result of Kazakhstan’s long campaign to minimize pollution from rocket launches and also a breakthrough in the oil-rich nation’s ambitious plans to become Russia’s partner in space exploration.

Russia pays $115 million annually for the use of Baikonur under a deal effective through 2050.

The cosmodrome extends for 50 miles (80 kilometers) from north to south, and for 80 miles (128 kilometers) east to west. It has dozens of launch pads and five tracking-control centers, nine tracking stations, and a 930-mile (1,500-kilometer) missile test range.

The cash-strapped Russian space agency has abandoned many space programs since the Soviet collapse, leaving many of Baikonur’s facilities to rust and crumble.

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