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The Second Life of the Gagarin Start Launch Complex

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
January 15, 2022
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Gagarin Start launch complex at Baikonur Cosmodrome. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Translated from Russian by Google Translate

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (Roscosmos PR) — The place where modern cosmonautics was born is known for sure: it is the legendary “Gagarin Launch”, site No. 1 of the Baikonur cosmodrome. It was here that the launch of the first satellite opened the Space Age of mankind. It was from here that Yuri Gagarin ascended into orbit on April 12, 1961.

For half a century, the “Gagarin Start” was the basis for the implementation of the Soviet, and then Russian and international manned programs. The first satellites and space stations to the Moon and planets were launched from it, and Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz and Progress flew from here. Alas, everything created by human hands has its own resource: gradually the launches began to “move” to the neighboring site No. 31, built later. Since 2017, only Soyuz-FG carriers have left the historic start – they are reliable, but already outdated. They were replaced by the Soyuz-2 family, for which the Gagarin Start was not suitable.

For the first time, information about plans for site No. 1 was announced on November 11, 2018 by the head of the Roscosmos State Corporation. “At the end of 2019, the operation of the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle will end, from January 2020 [the ships] Soyuz MS will fly on Soyuz-2.1a,” Dmitry Rogozin tweeted.

On September 25, 2019, the last manned spacecraft, Soyuz MS-15, left site No. 1.

Meanwhile, the legendary launch pad did not “rest” for long: on November 15, 2021, a trilateral agreement was signed at the Russian pavilion of the Dubai Airshow 2021 on the beginning of the modernization of the “Gagarin Launch”. The document was signed by the Director General of the UAE Space Agency Salim Al-Kubaysi, Deputy Director General of the State Corporation Roscosmos Sergei Savelyev and Minister of Digital Development, Innovation and Aerospace Industry of Kazakhstan Bagdat Musin. The modernization of site No. 1 will be the first joint space project under the agreement.

“The agreement between the UAE, Russia and Kazakhstan demonstrates the desire to support peaceful exploration of outer space. Russia and Kazakhstan have proven their effectiveness in the space industry, and we are pleased to lay the foundations for closer cooperation between the three countries, ”said Ms Sara bin Yousif Al-Amiri, UAE Minister of State for Advanced Technologies and Chair of the UAE Space Agency.

Gagarin Start launch complex at Baikonur Cosmodrome. (Credit: Roscosmos)

The parties intend to invest in the modernization of the “Gagarin Start” funds, as well as to attract private investors to participate in the project, and in the future – to conduct commercial operation of the complex on a joint basis. The key goal of the project is to preserve the “Gagarin Start” and ensure its smooth operation.

After the reconstruction, which is expected to be completed in 2023, Soyuz-2 missiles will be able to launch from site No. 1, as well as from site No. 31. Experts believe that the successful implementation of these plans will enable the provision of competitive services in the international market. Moreover, each project participant will have equal access to launch services.

The agreement on the reconstruction of the “Gagarin Launch” was the result of a long painstaking work of Russia, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates. Plans for the modernization of Site 1 were unveiled in April this year.

At the end of July, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed on a project for the reconstruction of site No. 1. “Gagarin Start” will become the second international project at Baikonur in the field of creating a launch infrastructure to support commercial launches. The first was the Baiterek project (Nazarbayevsky launch), which provides for the transformation of the Zenit missile launch complex under the Russian Soyuz-5 launch vehicle under development.

“In order for the complex to develop, it is important to work on two large projects that we have planned,” Bagdat Musin said at a meeting of the commission on cooperation between the Federation Council and the Senate (upper house) of the Kazakh parliament, held in Nur-Sultan in mid-summer. 

“The investment project to modernize the Gagarin Launch is being implemented together with Russia and colleagues from the UAE,” said Baubek Oralmagambetov, Chairman of the Aerospace Committee of the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation and Aerospace Industry of Kazakhstan, at the EAEU Space Integration business forum in Moscow. “We hope that the signing of the intergovernmental agreement will take place in the first quarter of next year.”

With the implementation of two projects, a self-sufficient infrastructure will appear on the territory of Baikonur for the implementation of commercial launches of the widest range. “Thus, in the second half of the decade, Baikonur will have a line of two rockets that will be able to launch most of the available spacecraft into orbit,” stressed the mayor of the city of Baikonur, Konstantin Busygin.

Igor Afanasyev, Russian space