Space: Leaving Kazakhstan Behind


April 21, 2012: Russia has ordered its Space Agency to again speed up the move from the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. The new plan is to reduce Russian launches at Balkinor from 75 percent to ten percent by the end of the decade. Russia considers it too risky to trust the Kazakhs. Currently Russia pays Kazakhstan $115 million a year for the use of Balkinor (which costs $50 million a year to maintain). Many Kazakhs see Balkinor as an ATM, and anytime there is a cash shortage they can make a withdrawal and the Russians will be forced to pay.

Three years ago Kazakhstan banned Russian ICBM launches at Baikonur, claiming they were too dangerous. The Russian moved all military launches to the smaller space center at Plesetsk in Russia and gave the Kazakhs some more money. At the same time Russia was hoping to turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches. So far this is working but the Kazakhs could shut down Baikonur at any time, either deliberately (due to extortionate demands) or because of a civil war.

For the moment Russia's largest satellite launch site is still in Kazakhstan. Founded in 1955, by the Soviet Union, Baikonur was long the main satellite launch facility for the Russians. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur found itself in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. There it has become more expensive and difficult for the Russians to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991, but this has led to periodic disputes over lease terms and the danger to locals from launch accidents. These disputes have been settled, for the moment.

The Russians need the Baikonur launch site, as it is very efficient for some types of launchers (geostationary, lunar, planetary, and ocean surveillance missions, as well as all manned missions). But having your main launch site in a foreign country was seen as untenable. So the Russians are building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. The new launch center in Amur, Vostochny will be operational by 2015, and all manned space programs will be moved to there by 2020. At that point the Russians will be able to abandon Baikonur, even though they have a lease that lasts until 2050. At that point it will be up to the Kazakhs to offer attractive terms to keep the Russians at Baikonur. If the Russians left they would take or destroy all their gear with them. No point in leaving anything to help a competitor launch satellites.

Vostochny used to be Svobodny 18, an ICBM base that was shut down in 1993 as part of the START disarmament treaty. Amur was ultimately selected because of weather (it averaged only 50-60 overcast days a year, had a dry climate, and calm winds) and the absence of earthquakes. The first manned launches are not expected until 2018, three years after the first unmanned launches. Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk, in northern Russia.






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