On my recent trip to Kazakhstan, I endeavored to go watch a rocket launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome. As I scoured the web on how to go about it on short notice and without spending too much, I could not find any usable information so I decided to put together this little field guide for travelers finding themselves in a similar situation. It’s all based on my experience planning the adventure, finding myself on the ground there and witnessing the actual launch.
So there are basically four ways to watch a rocket launch from Baikonur:
- From outside the cosmodrome
- With a tour agency that has the required authorizations to take you into the cosmodrome
- By bribing the Russian security personnel to let you in the cosmodrome
- By trespassing
Option 1 : the legal and cheap way (from outside)
Researching this option did not lead to any usable information, hence this article which I hope will be useful to future travelers wanting to observe the amazing spectacle that is a rocket launching into space. To put is shortly and as I got to witness it, even from outside the cosmodrome some 27 kilometers away from the pad, it is still a marvelous experience and well worth all the trouble to get to Baikonur by road.
In my opinion, the best view point is located on the highway some 18 kilometers east of Toretam. Not only is the closest accessible location from Gagarin’s Start, the pad from which Soyuz rockets launch to the International Space Station, it is also oriented parallel to the rocket’s course. Moreover, this suggested location is easily accessed with a car and also a nice camping spot for the night.
Soyuz launches (and probably all launches from Baikonur) all take off and then veer to the north-east for two reasons. The first being that the ISS orbits more or less in this direction and the second it that should something go wrong with the launch, the rocket or debris fallout will happen over the middle or Kazakhstan and Siberia, two areas very sparsely inhabited and under Russia’s control.
Option 2 : the tour agency
Several tour agencies hold the required authorization by Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) to bring tourists into the cosmodrome to watch a launch from the viewing platform, some 3 kilometers away from the launch pad. This options sure is the most reliable and safe way to watch a rocket fly into space, but it’s also the most expensive (you’re looking at several hundred euros…) and requires you to secure your ticket months in advance.
Option 3 : the bribe
According to my field research, bribing the guards costs about 13 000 Russian rubles per person. Whether this will get you in the cosmodrome or not I can’t tell, because I had to back down at the very last minute. Should want to exercise that option, your best bet is to ask the taxi drivers in Toretam, the Kazakh town next to the cosmodrome. Needless to say, it comes with some risks…
Option 4 : trespassing
The cosmodrome is located in a very large swath of steppes in the middle of Kazakhstan and judging by its size, I doubt they’ve had the whole zone fenced off. From the road to Gagarin’s Start, the pad where flights to the ISS usually launch, it’s about 27 kilometers. However, I am certain that the Russians have some sort of surveillance equipment set up to secure the site. Thermal cameras, radars, patrols, it’s probably all there and given the amount of camels and horses roaming the landscape (you would want one to run into the launch pad with the countdown started), they must have a way to detect and deter all living things entering the perimeter.
I for one would want to get caught by the security forces there. On top of trespassing on the cosmodrome, you would also be entering Russian territory illegally. Attempt at your own risk.