Gagarin's pad (Site 1) in Baikonur
The 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), even though it had an official designation Pad No. 5.
A Soyuz rocket with a crew vehicle is being installed on Pad 1 in Baikonur in 2000.
Origin of Site 1: Ground zero of the Cold War (1955-1957)
On September 15, 1955, a construction crew led by a young graduate of the Academy of Military Engineering V. Traibman, as manager, started digging the flame duct for the R-7 launch pad. Many participants could only guess about the real purpose of their efforts, so among soldiers, the construction site would become known as the "stadium."
Five scrapers, two bulldozers, five excavators with the half-cubical meter scoops and five trucks 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, which could not be overcome with the 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 a scapegoat out of the manager and he, not coincidentally, soon ended up in a psychiatric clinic.
In the beginning of January 1956, the entire staff of the 217th Construction Brigade, OISB, from the Semipalatinsk nuclear test 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 the 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 work 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 had been made without any thorough geological survey of the area. They were explained that deep exploratory drilling had not been made due to lack of time. By January 15, Alekseenko requested drilling equipment at the site, and by the end of January the excavation had resumed despite temperatures hovering between minus 25 and 35 degrees from November 1955 to the 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 were 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 smashed the roof 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, a five-meter high water fountain burst from an exploratory well not far from the excavation site. Drilling inspectors warned that further excavation would result in flooding of the construction site. The fountain was quickly tamed and put in use, while excavation managers were deciding what to do next.
claims he managed to contact Sergei Korolev through a KGB representative.
He asked for the chief-designer's permission to stop excavating at the present
depth and to begin concrete works. "The exhaust stream of an ascending rocket can not have a free flow distance less than a half of the rocket's
length," Korolev, said, "Please do everything according to plan."
Only then did Alekseenko realize the purpose of the cyclopean structure he
was building. According to his own recollections, Alekseenko was stunned by
Korolev's response and asked, "Will we fly to Mars too?" "Of
course," Korolev replied, "...and farther than that."
After the 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 had started pushing the surface upward. Now water could rush into the excavation from below.
The managers hoped that by laying concrete into the foundation as soon as possible they would solidify the surface preventing it from rising. However, in typical bureaucratic nuisance, they failed to immediately obtain the signatures necessary to start the concrete works. Brigade Commander Mikhail Khalabudenko ordered the concrete plant to withhold the material until all the paperwork had been signed. Alekseenko rushed to Shubnikov's directorate at Site 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."
several hours, Alekseenko gave Khalabudenko the signed documents, and the latter made
a phone call to the plant ordering the release of the concrete. When the first
truck arrived at the excavation site, nobody expected it and the 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, 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 the main base pillars of the launch platform hollow inside. According to the authors of the proposal, it allowed to reduce the weight of the structure by more than 3.7 thousand tons, as well as cut 25 days of construction and save 1,500 cubical meters of concrete and 500 thousand rubles in 1956 prices. (This gives a hint about the astronomical cost of the entire facility.)
During the 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 a frantic rescue effort, his colleagues spent 20 minutes cutting the bar and lowering it on the ground with 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 trench and had to be slid over it to rest on the pillars rising from the trench. In July 1956, engineers decided to do additional assembly on the platform to reduce the amount of work to be done on the platform when it would hang 50 meters above ground. The installation of the platform in place was planned 30 days later. With the extra work, the weight of the platform grew from 300 to 600 tons, by the time the structure was moved into place.
Inside the three-floor launch platform were mounted propellant pumps, nitrogen tanks, the fire-suppression system and the 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, did the launch complex engineers discover the absence of an oxygen draining system, whose piping had to go under the terminal's foundation.
Concrete works on the launch pad at Site 1 was mostly completed in the Fall of 1956. Now, military construction crews were erecting the complex metal structures of the pad. By October 10, 1956, the railway linking the launch pad with the assembly building at Site 2 was officially completed. (51)
R-7 launch pad enters service
From May 1957 until December 1966, Site 1 was officially declared to be in "battlefield readiness" as a part of the Soviet strategic nuclear infrastructure. During this period, at least one nuclear-capable missile was stored at the processing complex of Site 2 ready for rollout to Site 1 in case of a potential nuclear confrontation with the West. At the same time, the site served as the primary gateway into orbit for the Soviet space program. The first satellite launches and all the early piloted missions originated from Site 1.
In 1958, the launch complex at Site 1 was refurbished to host three-stage launch vehicles, however a first-stage booster detached during the launch, damaged the facility on July 10 of the same year.
Another close call took place on April 16, 1960, when the disintegration of the 8K72 launch vehicle with a E-3 lunar probe, immediately after its liftoff, resulted in a wide-spread damage of various support structures around the launch complex, but, fortunately, mostly spared the launch complex and, miraculously, did not cause fatalities.
In the second half of 1960, the launch complex at Site 1 was modified to accommodate a four-stage version of the R-7 based launch vehicle, later known as Molniya, ahead of the first Mars launch campaign in October.
On June 1, 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 the Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 spacecraft. (466)
The 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 that they remove a rocket with a Mars probe from the launch pad to clear the way for a nuclear-tipped missile. Concurrently, at Site 2, 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.
The Pad No. 5 at Site 1 was seriously damaged again on July 10, 1963, due to an explosion of the launch vehicle before liftoff.
In December 1966, the Soviet strategic rocket forces officially left Site 1, along with the R-7 missile; however the facility remained the primary place of origin for piloted, planetary and military space missions. The site was taken out of service for renovations in 1970 and in 1979. An on-pad explosion of the launch-vehicle with a Soyuz spacecraft on September 26, 1983, seriously damaged Site 1 one more time. 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 personnel.
What's next for Gagarin's pad?
On Aug. 6, 2000, a Soyuz launch vehicle carrying the Progress M1-3 cargo ship toward the International Space Station became the 400th rocket to take off from Site 1, according to official statistics. And by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, more than 460 launches were officially recorded to have taken off from the same facility. According to the official statistics of the Gagarin training center, the launch of the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft in July 2019 was the 518th mission to depart from the pad.
However, with the looming retirement of the Soyuz-FG variant, which used a Ukrainian-built flight control system, the fate of the Gagarin's pad became uncertain.
In June 2010, Sergei Smirnov, the director of the Space Center "Yuzhny" (southern), which took responsibility for the operational use of Baikonur two years earlier, told the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, that Site 1 would eventually be refurbished for the operations of the Soyuz-2 rocket. At the time, 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 postponing the work, the news agency quoted sources in Baikonur.
However, in reality, financial problems prompted Roskosmos to cut funding for upgrades at Site 1, which would leave Site 31 as the only operational pad for the Soyuz-2 rocket series in Baikonur. As a result, with the retirement of the Soyuz-FG variant, Site 1 would have to be mothballed.
To prevent its complete closure, in March 2018, Roskosmos proposed Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, UAE, to invest in the upgrades of Site 1 for the launches of the Soyuz-2M variant.
On June 7, 2019, Roskosmos announced that, in partnership with its Glavkosmos commercial arm, it had signed an agreement with the Russian Fund for Director Investments, RFPI, and middle-eastern investors to provide $87 million for the upgrades of Site 1 for the Soyuz-2 rocket. That sum would be split equally between Russia, UAE, and Kazakhstan, requiring each side to bring $27 million.
In August 2019, RIA Novosti quoted Kazakh officials as saying that Site 1 would be closed for conversion to Soyuz-2 from 2020 to 2023. However, multiple sources familiar with the matter remained skeptical. According to one expert, the June 7 agreement with the United Arab Emirates was preliminary and did not involve the immediate disbursement of money for the project. UAE officials, who were in principle interested in seeing the pad upgraded, still reportedly wanted first to make sure that their investments would not be stolen or otherwise misused. UAE also saw the progress at Gagarin's pad as a test before their commitment to other potential projects in Baikonur, first of all, in supporting the refurbishment of the Zenit launch complex for the Soyuz-5 rocket.
As of the middle of 2019, there were no signs of preparations for upgrading Gagarin's pad, such as the procurement of new equipment. In fact, the facility was rumored to be at risk of becoming a donor of hardware for Pad No. 6 at Site 31, where Roskosmos was shifting its Soyuz operations. Even if upgrades were to begin, there were also questions about how many years such work would really last given the current realities of the Russian space program.
The final Soyuz-FG rocket launched the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft from Site 1 on September 25, 2019, closing 62 years of operations at the world's first space launch pad. Behind the scene, there was a concern at Roskosmos that with the closure of Site 1 in Baikonur, launches of Soyuz-2-1a rockets with transport spacecraft to the International Space Station, in particular, Progress cargo missions, would now be possible only from a single launch pad at Site 31. As a result, any major contigency at Site 31 could jeopardize the flow of supplies to the station, the program officials warned.
On April 12, 2020, the TASS news agency quoted Kazakh officials as saying that the trilateral agreement between Russia, Kazakhstan and UAE on the refurbishment of Site 1 had been expected at the end of that year. At the time, the sides were reported working on the amendments proposed by state sponsors on the draft agreement. However, at the end of 2021, Kazakh press reported that the country's space officials were looking for new investors, because a new leadership at UAE was re-considering its participation. As of 2022, the facility had remained mothballed, but with annual maintenance of its systems which could enable its use for the launches of the Soyuz-2 rockets after necessary upgrades of the facility, according to Roskosmos.
Scale model of the original R-7 pad in Tyuratam circa 1957.
An aerial view of Launch Complex 5 with the Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft being prepared for the blastoff. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The Soyuz rocket blasts off from Launch Complex 5. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
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
The launch vehicle with the Voskhod spacecraft on the launch pad at Site 1 in 1964. Credit: RKK Energia
Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
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
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
The Soyuz-U2 rocket on the launch pad at Site-1 in Baikonur in October 2000. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak
The view of the R-7 launch pad from the side of the flame trench. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Flame trench at Site 1. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
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
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
About half an hour before launch the personnel evacuates Site 1. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The interface between the Soyuz booster and the fueling hardware minutes before launch. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
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-like structure, lifts off. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Minutes after the launch, the safety crews move in to deactivate the pad. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
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