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Space is a base for a bright tourist future

Baikonur (Kazakhstan): Copies and models of missiles, busts and other completed heroes of the conquest of space are spread in the Kazakh city of Baikonur, which includes the famous Russian space center, while its buildings are adorned with murals representing spacecraft, in a scene in which the space world clearly dominates on the snowy streets.

“All this is the creation of people’s hands, as many generations have worked a lot” in Baikonur, which has a population of 76,000 and is located in the steppes of Kazakhstan, the largest country in Asia Central.

But the city of Baikonur, whose lands Moscow has leased, and the space station located about 30 kilometers away, are threatened with collapse, and are looking forward to a future recovery in which tourism could play a pivotal role.

Founded in 1955 on the banks of the Syr Darya River, the city of Baikonur was originally composed of simple apartment blocks housing the workers who, under the cover of strict secrecy, built the space rocket launch base.

From this space base, the Soviet Union achieved its most prominent achievements in the space race, such as sending the first artificial satellite, “Sputnik” (1957), the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1961) and the first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova (1963).

In the years that followed, Baikonur, then called Leninsk, had its golden age, and thousands of space program employees who were considered the Soviet Union’s scientific elite settled in, staying with their families in typical Soviet concrete buildings.

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“A lot of those with higher degrees were there,” recalls Oksana Slivina, a 57-year-old teacher who has lived in Baikonur for thirty years when her soldier father was transferred there.

The city, which is enveloped in frost in the winter and in a stifling hot summer, remained a site surrounded by strict security measures for many years, and it was closed to foreigners. To this day, entry is still required to obtain a special permit.

Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur suddenly found herself in Kazakhstan. The city experienced a bleak stage, as thousands of its residents returned to Russia, at a time when the Russian space sector was experiencing major financing difficulties.

“Our goal was not to let the city collapse, and to preserve it so that it could develop later,” says former architect Malik Mutaliev. “I think we succeeded.”

Kazakhstan charges heavily for leasing Baikonur and its space base to Russia under a contract valid until 2050. The city and its economy continue to benefit from regular launches by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

However, in 2016, Moscow began implementing the project to establish its own Vostochny space base in the Far East, and intends to replace it with Baikonur in the long term, despite the significant delays in its construction caused by rampant corruption in the Russian space sector.

And the city’s hopes were revived by the sending of “Roscomos” Japanese tourists into space Wednesday from Baikonur, as this move represents Moscow’s return to this lucrative sector after an absence of 12 years.

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“Our city has literally become a sleeping city. We do not produce anything, we are a subsidized city, we live only thanks to space. Tourism will give us a strong impetus,” says Malik Mutaliev.

Oksana Silvina considers that it is not permissible not to take advantage of the city’s fame and symbolic status to attract more visitors.

“Of course we have to invest a lot of money in order (…) to have something else to show other than the launch pads,” says the teacher.

Meanwhile, the Baikonur municipality, far from it all, is struggling to keep its youth in it.

“A lot of people leave, and usually the parents stay because they get paid well, but their children go to Russia or somewhere else,” notes 21-year-old student Georgiy Eileen, who hopes to leave the city.

Despite everything, Malik Mutaliev remains confident and looks to the future with optimism.

“Our city has survived many things, such as perestroika, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and electricity crises (…). We have overcome everything,” he says.