All of the Soviet Union’s legendary space odysseys began from a single point on the map: the Baikonur Cosmodrome, lying in the middle of the endless Kazakh steppe. The first artificial Earth satellite, the first craft to approach the Moon, and the first manned orbital craft spacecraft were all launched here, making Baikonur a leading symbol of the space age.
And as so often happens with all things legendary, the history of Baikonur has become so rich in various stories over the decades that it's hard to separate fact from fiction.
A valley rich in history
Baikonur means “Rich Valley" in Kazakh. The valley in question, however, is actually a desert lying to the east of the Aral Sea. The Soviet government considered several different locations for the country’s first (and largest) space center, including Dagestan, the Republic of Mari El, and even the Astrakhan Region.
But the choice was eventually made in favor of a spot in the Kyzylorda Region, Kazakhstan, which was ideally suited for the purpose. The advantages offered by Baikonur included enough space to position the ground radio relay stations at the required distance from each other, proximity to the equator, and a sunny climate.
For centuries, the nomads that lived in the area had passed the Legend of the Black Herder down the generations. According to the story, a long time ago, the Black Herder fashioned a huge sling out of calf hides and used it to hurl red-hot stones into the sky.
The stones would then fall down and strike the herder’s foes, who would flee in utter terror. But in the places where the stones fell, no plants would grow, all the animals died, and the land itself remained burnt and barren for a very long time.
The legend, it seems, was an eerie premonition of things to come: the giant "sling” is now hurling “red-hot” rockets into space.
The secret path to the stars
Mankind took its first step to the stars on January 12, 1955. On that day, two carriages that arrived at the small railway station of Tyuratam were detached from the rest of the train and left there. A group of people wearing half-length uniform coats stepped out. These were the advance team that set about preparing for the arrival of the main corps of the builders of Baikonur.
It is said that when the Soviet Union’s main space rocket designer, Sergei Korolev, arrived at the site and saw a new railway track leading from the Tyuratam station into the steppe, he gave an order to start building the launch pad right where the track ended.
That is how the location was chosen for Gagarin’s Start, Baikonur’s first launch pad. The rails, cast back in the early 20th century, are still being used to transport space rockets to their launch positions.
Incidentally, the cosmodrome itself was initially named Tyuratam, after the railway station. But since the entire construction project was shrouded in utter secrecy, a different name was used in all official documents. What is more, a decoy space center, with empty shells parading as space center facilities, was built not far from the real Baikonur.
Not content with that, the Soviet officials who oversaw the project then went ahead and ordered a whole decoy town to be built near the decoy space center, complete with the shells of schools, shops, and apartment blocks.
Space records instead of sports records
Elaborate secrecy measures were used throughout the entire project. All construction materials were brought to Tyuratam by railway in passenger cars, which were unloaded in the middle of the night. Even the construction workers at the site were not allowed to know the purpose of the project.
Up until the very last moment they were being told that they were building a stadium. Questions such as "Why build a stadium in the middle of a desert?" were strictly discouraged.
It is also said that when workers were excavating the foundations of the Gagarin’s Start launch pad, they found an ancient fire pit buried 35 meters underground. Archeologists dated it back to 10,000-35,000 BC.
Korolev took the discovery as a good omen and was later quoted as saying: “People lived here before us. This means that the place will be lucky for us, too.” It is also said that he collected a piece of coal from the fire pit and carried it with him in a matchbox for luck.
“Palm trees” in a desert
When the Soviet Union announced that it had successfully put a man into space, Western governments were taken completely by surprise. There was huge international interest in the new Soviet space center.
When General Charles de Gaulle paid a visit to Moscow in 1966, the Soviet Union and France signed an agreement on cooperation in peaceful space exploration. That is when the government in Moscow decided to give the French delegation a glimpse of the place from where Soviet spacecraft were being launched into orbit.
The operation to prepare for the visit by foreign dignitaries was code-named Palm Tree, and was overseen by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev himself.
On June 25, 1966, the town of Leninsk, which lies 45 km (28 miles) from Baikonur, turned into Zvezdograd (Star City) for just one day. The entire city was cleaned and polished to a shine; roads were resurfaced, fences were repainted, and every building got a facelift.
The visit by the French was timed to coincide with the launch of a Vostok rocket carrying a Kosmos-series satellite. Eyewitnesses say de Gaulle was very impressed, and his son, watching the Vostok lift off through binoculars, kept repeating, “Colossale! Colossale!"
According to official records, there has been a total of four “Palm Tree" operations in the history of Baikonur. The last such event was held in 1970, in preparation for the arrival of another French president, Georges Pompidou.
But there may have been more palm trees in the Kazakh steppe – who knows what other secrets one of the Soviet Union’s most secretive places might reveal in the future?