In the middle of the vast desert of Kazakhstan is the hulking spacecraft launch complex called the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
It’s the world’s oldest space launch facility, and a place of great mystery. Its remote location and enormous size has kept it in the center of endless speculation, stretching from secret Cold War weapons testing to the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight MH370.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome was built in the late 1950s, as the space race between the USSR and U.S. began heating up. The whole complex was built under the utmost secrecy.
Even calling it Baikonur was misleading—the name and geographical coordinates match a mining town 200 miles southwest. It became known as the headquarters of Russia’s space program, but was actually also secretly being used for testing ballistic missiles.
The complex quickly made Americans sweat, while earning its place in history.
Apart from being the first launch complex of its kind ever built, the Cosmodrome was where Yuri Gagarin, the first human sent into orbit, was launched; it was the takeoff point for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; and the starting point of the first satellite, Sputnik I.
Though Kazakhstan is no longer part of the Soviet Union, Russia still uses Baikonur to send off its crewed missions.
The area, which is a 3,000-square-mile sprawl larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, is still leased by Russia and managed by Roscosmos, Russia’s Federal Space Agency. Thanks to a lease renewal in 2005, it will be until 2050.
Its use costs Russia a pretty penny: around $115 million per year for rent. The town around the space center, too, is administered by Russia and access is controlled by Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Today, what had been the hub of space race competition has turned into a collaboration. When the United States stopped domestic space launches due to funding cuts in 2010, NASA began using the facilities in Kazakhstan.
In October, 2014, two Russians and an American were launched from the Cosmodrome in a rocket and entered the orbit to the International Space Station.
Today, it’s the world’s biggest operational space launch site, but its nine launch complexes still hold a few secrets.
In June, a Russian urban explorer who infiltrated the building found the rotting hulks of two of the former Soviet Union’s most prized spacecrafts.
For more than 20 years, the two decommissioned Soviet-era shuttles have been left rusting in the desert warehouse.
Inside one of the Soviet-era splotchy gray facilities, rest two vessels that were forced into retirement long ago.
The pair were made for the Buran orbital vehicle program, which was launched in the 1970s as the most aspirational of Soviet space plans. A Buran shuttle only saw airtime once—after a flight in 1988, the program ran out of funds. Two other proposed flights were never completed, and the pair of shuttles was abandoned. In 1993, President Boris Yeltsin put a halt to the 16.4 billion ruble venture.
But the Soviet engineers were taking cues from the West for the Buran shuttles—they ended up copying almost exactly the design of NASA’s shuttles. The purpose of the huge, weight-bearing craft was thought to be for hoisting laser weapons into orbit.
Kazakhstan has tried to make the Cosmodrome a tourist destination for years.
Last year, the government claimed that a company called Diamond Trans was in the process of turning it into a tourism complex complete with hotels and shopping malls.
But, as The Guardian reported in October, “it is unclear where Diamond Trans broke ground, if at all. Calls to phone numbers listed for the company go unanswered. The Kazakh space agency, Kazcosmos, could not provide contact details and a Roscosmos representative based in Baikonur had never heard of the company.”
Despite its status as one of the world’s premier space facilities, it’s a sprawling complex that critics say isn’t taken care of well.
Some the vacant buildings are being occupied by Kazakh herders, and the lack of maintenance over the years has taken its toll. In 2002, a hangar in the structure collapsed during a storm.
With its remote setting and bizarre past, the mysteries of the Cosmodrome continue to multiply.
The Baikonur found its way into the news this year when conspiracies surrounded the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
Aviation expert Jeff Rice offered a detailed theory: Russian President Vladimir Putin had orchestrated the plane’s hijacking and ordered it flown to the remote Kazakh spaceport.
“There aren’t a lot of places to land a plane as big as the 777,” he wrote in New York magazine, “but, as luck would have it, I found one: a place just past the last handshake ring called Baikonur Cosmodrome.”