Baikonur's R-7 facilities

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Gagarin's pad

Above: The Soyuz rocket with a manned spacecraft is being installed on Pad 1 in Baikonur.


Space center in Baikonur originated as a test launch site for the R-7 ICBM developed at Sergei Korolev's design bureau. The original facilities of the test range founded in 1955 included a single launch pad at Site 1, and an assembly building, known as MIK-2, located at Site 2. The processing area and the launch pad were connected by a railway. The first R-7 rocket blasted off from Site 1 in Tyuratam on May 15, 1957. The world's first artificial satellite was launched from the same pad on October 4, 1957. After the launch of the first manned spacecraft, Vostok-1, in 1961, the pad at Site 1 was nicknamed "Gagarinskiy Start" (Gagarin's pad).


Site 1 history (1955-1957)

On September 15, 1955 the construction crew led by a young graduate of Academy of Military Engineering V. Traibman, as a manager, started digging the flame duct for the R-7 launch pad. The participants could only guess about real purpose of their efforts, so among soldiers, the construction site would become known as "stadium."

Five scrapers, two bulldozers, five excavators with the half-cubical meter scoops and five tracks were involved in the work. Since the survey maps, apparently provided by Army Construction Directorate GUSS MO, showed only sand at the location, workers expected an easy time. To their shock, in October, the diggers stumbled upon layers of heavy clay, could not be overcome with available machinery. At the beginning of November, the approaching cold completely paralyzed the equipment and with it all the excavation efforts. Moscow supervisors quickly made the manager of the construction a scapegoat, who, not coincidentally, soon ended up in a psychiatric clinic.

In the beginning of January 1956, the entire staff of 217th Construction Brigade, OISB, from Semipalatinsk nuclear range was transferred to the construction of the launch pad at Site 1. Managers Alekseenko, Chernuy and Grebennikov were ordered to complete the excavation of the flame duct and to build concrete structure, which would become the foundation of the launch platform. According to the plan prepared by GUSS MO, nine additional crews were appointed to the Facility No. 1 to conduct concrete and metal works on the launch pad.

Shortly after works restarted, one of the managers broke his leg in a bulldozer accident. Soon thereafter, the remaining managers discovered that all the blueprints for the construction site were made without any thorough geological survey of the area. They were explained that deep exploratory drilling have not been made due to lack of time. By January 15, Alekseenko requested drilling equipment to the site, and by the end of January the excavation had resumed despite temperatures were reaching minus 25-35 degrees between November 1955 and end of March 1956.

Now work was conducted in three or four shifts with 25 excavators and 100-150 trucks involved. The workers and drivers were replacing each other right on work places; mechanics and repairmen had been constantly present fixing equipment on site. In two instances, loaded trucks fell into the excavation, in one case burying soldiers under the load of soil, however resulting only in slight injuries, after they were unearthed. Several times, inexperienced excavator operators were smashing rooftops of trucks they were loading, again miraculously avoiding injuries. Finally, remnants of geological explosives left on the ground were set off by an excavator, which was severely damaged in the following blast. Now, the survey drilling was performed in stages to a depth of five meters, after which soil was excavated, and the drilling was repeated again.

In the middle of March 1956, when the workers were 10 meters short of the planned depth, the five-meter high water fountain burst from the exploratory well not far from the excavation site. Drilling inspectors warned that further excavation would result in flooding of the construction site. The fountain have been quickly tamed and put in use, while excavation managers were deciding what to do next.

Alekseenko claims to manage to contact Sergei Korolev through a KGB representative. He asked for chief-designer's permission to stop excavations at the present depth and to begin concrete works. "The exhaust stream of a taking off rocket can not have free flow space less than a half of the rocket length," Korolev, said, "Please do everything according to plan." Only now Alekseenko realized the purpose of the cyclopean structure he was building. According to his own recollections, Alekseenko stunned by Korolev's response, then asked, "Will we fly to Mars too." "Of course," Korolev replied, "and farther than that."

Alekseenko then proposed Shubnikov and Grigorenko to divert incoming water by the blasts and before water returns to remove last soil and seal the area with concrete. The plan was approved and blasts were conducted on April 5 and 12, 1956. Yet, during the night between April 18 and 19, the water broke into the excavation, flooding it above the level of planned foundation for the launch platform. Using pumps, workers managed to reduce and maintain the flooding at the level acceptable for concrete works.

After metal frame of the foundation was assembled, geodesic survey showed that it was 25 millimeters above the projected level. A day later, it was already twice as high. Construction managers concluded that underground pressure freed from tons of excavated soil started pushing the surface upward. Now water could rush into the excavation from below.

Managers hoped that by laying concrete into foundation as soon as possible they would solidify the surface preventing it from rising. However, in a typical bureaucratic nuisance, they failed to immediately obtain the signatures necessary to start concrete works. The Brigade Commander Mikhail Khalabudenko ordered concrete plant to withhold the material until all the paperwork had been signed. Alekseenko rushed to Shubnikov's directorate at the Facility #10, handed him the documentation to be signed and with it an ultimatum of sorts, "Either you make them sign the acts to start concrete works today, or in a couple of days we loose the site and will have to start all over again in a different place."

In several hours, Alekseenko gave Khalabudenko signed documents, and the latter made a phone call to the plant ordering to release the concrete. When the first truck arrived at the excavation site, nobody expected it and frustrated driver was running around the temporary boardwalks asking, " Who's here waiting for concrete." Finally, Captain Markov spotted the truck and ordered the brigade of workers enjoying a long "break" to begin concrete works. By the time concrete began pouring into the foundation, it was 150 millimeters above its planned level. By May 1, 1956, the concrete foundation of the R-7 launch pad was laid.

In June 1956, the new geological surveys indicated that ability of the local soil to carry loads was 25-30 percent lower than original estimates. Urgent measures to lighten the concrete structure of the launch pad were required. Military engineers V. Grishkov and V. Yangicher from TsIPSS proposed and developed methods to make main base pillars of the launch platform hollow inside. According to the authors of the proposal, it allowed to reduce weight of the structure by more than 3.7 thousand tons, as well as cut 25 days from construction and save 1,500 cubical meters of concrete and 500 thousand rubles in prices of 1956. (This gives a hint about astronomical price of the entire facility)

During assembly of the pillars' still framework, one of the workers broke his safety belt and in his fall was impaled on one of the metal bars of the pillar's frame 30 meters above the foundation. In the frantic rescue effort, his colleagues spent 20 minutes cutting the bar and lowering it on the ground by the crane, however, it was too late.

The launch platform itself, a giant steel square 40 by 40 meters and three-story high was made of 16 railroad bridge trusses. It was partially assembled near the excavated flame duct and had to be sled over it to rest on the pillars raising from the duct. In July 1956, engineers decided to do additional assembly on the platform to reduce amount of work required to be done on the platform when it will hang 50 meters above ground. The installation of the platform in place was planned 30 days later. As a result, the weight of the platform grew from 300 to 600 tons, by the time the structure was moved into place.

Inside of three-floor launch platform were mounted propellant pumps, nitrogen tanks, fire-suppression system and movable service deck. Special racks, which would hold nitrogen tanks, had to be cut in half to fit them through the assembly hatches of the launch platform.

The terminal for propellant cars was erected at the edge of the launch pad. Only after the facility was complete, launch complex engineers discovered a lack of oxygen draining system, whose piping had to go under the terminal's foundation. Concrete works on the launch pad at Site 1 have been mostly completed in the fall of 1956. Now, military construction crews were erecting complex metal structures of the pad. By October 10, 1956, the railroad linking the launch pad with the assembly building was officially completed. (51)

In service

Since May 1957 and until December 1966, Site 1 had been officially in "battlefield readiness" as a part of the Soviet strategic nuclear infrastructure. During this period, at least one nuclear-capable missile had been stored at Site 2 ready for the rollout to Site 1 in a potential nuclear confrontation with the West. At the same time, the site served as a primary gateway into orbit for the Soviet space program. First satellite launches and all early manned missions originated from Site 1.

In 1958, the launch complex at Site 1 was refurbished to host three-stage launch vehicles. In 1962, the explosion of the rocket carrying a Zenit surveillance satellite left the pad out of service for several months. At the beginning of July, the head of GSKB Spetsmash Vladimir Barmin promised the readiness of the pad by August 1, 1962, to enable the launch of Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 spacecraft. (466)

Military and space functions of the facility almost came into conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At the peak of the confrontation with the US, the Soviet military personnel in Baikonur demanded from the Soviet space officials to remove the rocket with the Mars probe from the launch pad to clear the way for a nuclear-tipped missile. Concurrently, at Site 2, the personnel was hastily "unpacking" the missile for a doomsday action. The rollout was apparently called off at the last minute and the Mars mission proceeded as scheduled.

In December 1966, the Soviet nuclear forces officially abandoned Site 1 along with the R-7 missile; however the facility remained a primary place of origin for manned, planetary and military space missions. The site was taken out of service for renovations in 1970 and 1979. An on-pad explosion of the launch-vehicle with the Soyuz spacecraft in September 1983 crippled the site one more time. The repairs at the pad continued until the summer of next year.

The next (scheduled) refurbishment of the launch complex at Site 1 took place in the second half of 1992. Two years later, civilian personnel of the KBOM bureau, the organization, which originally developed the complex, took over the service and maintenance of Site 1 from the Russian military.

Into the 21st century

On Aug. 6, 2000, a launch vehicle carrying the Progress M1-3 cargo ship toward the International Space Station became the 400th rocket taking off from Site 1. More than 460 launches were conducted from this pad by the end of the first decade of the 21st century. In June 2010, Sergei Smirnov, the director of the Space Center "Yuzhny" (southern), which in 2008 took responsibility for the operational use of Baikonur, told Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, that Site 1 would eventually be refurbished for the operations of the Soyuz-2 rocket.

Upgrades at Site 1 were expected to last at least a year, during which all launches of Soyuz rockets from Baikonur would be conducted from Site 31. As of 2012, Site 1 was expected to be taken out of service by the end of 2013, however in May of that year, the Interfax news agency reported that repairs would not start until the middle of 2014. Delays with the development and approval of the necessary documentation, procurements of construction materials and the deployment of machinery at the location had taken longer than expected and required to postpone the work, the news agency quoted sources in Baikonur.

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Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: May 21, 2013

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R-7

R-7

The original pad in Baikonur circa 1957.

Movie

An aerial view of Launch Complex 5 with the Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft being prepared for the blastoff. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Movie

The Soyuz rocket blasts off from Launch Complex 5. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

A full-scale replica of the Vostok rocket and its erector. The display illustrates how low the rocket is positioned relative to the surface of the launch pad. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

The launch vehicle with the Voskhod spacecraft on the launch pad at Site 1 in 1964. Credit: RKK Energia

Pad No. 5

During the ISS program, Russian manned launches were conducted with six-month intervals in the spring and fall. Here, the diesel locomotive backs away from the launch pad, after an early morning delivery of the Soyuz launch vehicle to the launch pad silhouetted by the April sun. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

After the rocket is installed in the vertical position and its railroad erector is removed, two service trusses raise from both sides enveloping the rocket into an array of access bridges. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

R-7

The Soyuz-U2 rocket on the launch pad at Site-1 in Baikonur, October 2000. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

The view of the R-7 launch pad from the side of the flame trench. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

This aerial view shows the entire R-7 launch complex at Site 1 (foreground) and processing facilities at Site 2 (background). MIK 2B-1 assembly building can be seen on the right. The original MIK-2 building (white) completed in 1957 and its MIK-2-1 extension added in mid-1970s can be seen in the center of the photo on the background. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

The aerial view looking south shows the R-7 launch complex at Site 1 (foreground) and the antennas of the ground control station at Site 18 (background). Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

About half an hour before launch the personnel evacuates Site 1. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Interface

The interface between the Soyuz booster and the fueling hardware minutes before launch. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

After burning for about 17 seconds, the engines of the launcher generate enough thrust for the liftoff. No longer pressured downwards by the weight of the rocket, the tulip-like trusses of the launch pad holding the vehicle at its "waist" fall back under force of gravity. The rocket, which was hanging on the tulip, lifts off. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Pad No. 5

Minutes after the launch, the safety crews move in to deactivate the pad. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Pad No. 5

For few precious days in April, wild tulips mysteriously rise from sandy soil of Baikonur adoring harsh openness of the steppe with stunning colors, and never failing to amaze crowds of strangers coming for space launches. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak