It was the year 1961. Moments before Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, he was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Since then, the launch site has bore witness to other milestones in the Space Race: the missions that sent the first dog and first satellite into orbit took off here as well.
The world’s first and largest space launch facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is currently on lease to Russia for US$115 million per year till 2050. As the world gears up for space tourism, the spaceport is likely to remain at the heart of action for many decades to come.
While the Baikonur Cosmodrome is an icon for space enthusiasts and Soviet history buffs, getting there is no easy feat. Visitors usually take a domestic flight to Kyzylorda, followed by a four-hour drive through the monotonous Kazakh steppe. Guided tours are the only means of accessing the Cosmodrome.
Most tours will take you to the museum at Baikonur Cosmodrome, where cosmonauts’ equipment and spacecraft are on display. Besides learning about the science behind space travel, you can also check out where key players in the Space Race worked and lived. For instance, the houses of Gagarin and Sergei Korolev, a key Soviet rocket engineer, are a stone’s throw away. You will also get to visit the rocket launch pads and step inside spacecraft such as a Buran and Soyuz.
The main show is of course, to catch a rocket launch in person. Travellers will have to plan their trip around the Cosmodrome’s schedule for both manned and unmanned launches. Tours to view rocket launches are as surreal as they are expensive. Prices start from S$2,000 for a three-day tour, and can go up to S$6,000 for a six-day tour.
Another museum, the Cosmodrome History Museum located an hour’s drive from the Cosmodrome in the town of Baikonur, offers more insights into those who helped advance Russian space travel. While its collection might be smaller than that of the museum within the Cosmodrome, its appeal lies in how it tries to give space engineering a human face.
Though an adventure to the Cosmodrome certainly doesn’t come cheap, it is the stuff of movies and science fantasies. If your pockets are deep enough, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience well worth splurging on.