Greener Pastures Seen for Baikonur After Russian Military Pullout

The magazine Der Spiegel has a very good story about the future of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur launch complex. It centers on International Launch Services president Frank McKenna, an American who helps to oversee commercial launches from the formerly supersecret Soviet spaceport where Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin roared into history 50 years ago.

With McKenna’s help, Russia is currently attempting to expand Baikonur’s central role in the satellite business. The Russian military is scheduled to have completely withdrawn from the complex by 2010. After that, the spaceport will be put to exclusively civilian use, which will make it possible to launch even more commercial satellites into space from Baikonur.

Suddenly a whisper passes through the room. A tall, older man is standing in the doorway. “Today’s launch isn’t really all that special,” growls Leonid Gurushkin, the Proton program’s technical director. Gurushkin has worked in Baikonur for more than 40 years, and he has monitored 300 flights into space. “We are the only ones who can launch rockets on an industrial scale.”

Business is expected to get even better once the military completes its withdrawal. In fact, after downing a few drinks, Gurushkin positively raves about what he calls a new golden age. He fantasizes about souvenir shops, tour buses and visitors from around the world — not unlike what you would find at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

It’s a very interesting story. Definitely a contrast to events in the Sunshine State, where Space Florida is struggling to complete one commercial launch pad. Meanwhile, Baikonur seems poised to become an even stronger competitor.