If you want to launch a human being into space these days, you have just two options: One is the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China. The other is Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, the oldest and largest space launch facility.
Kazakhstan can’t get into space on its own, but the site is rented through 2050 by the Russian government. In 2012, it was host to 14 commercial satellite launches, and it’s also the only way to get a human-carrying spacecraft to or from the International Space Station. The site has an unbelievable amount of history: The first satellite, Sputnik, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, were launched into space from there. Some of its facilities are beginning to show their age.
The environment at Baikonur is hard and arid, with temperatures ranging from -40°F (-40°C) in winter to 113°F (45°C) in summer. It’s a hard place, home to fantastic achievements, and—oh, who are we kidding, let’s get to the pictures.
On Nov. 7 2013, the torch for the Sochi Winter Olympics rode with astronauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft destined for the International Space Station. But first, the spacecraft’s Soyuz-FG rocket booster had to be transported by train from a hangar to the launch site.AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky
Security looks on as the Soyuz TMA-11M rocket is rolled onto its launchpad.NASA/Bill Ingalls
Launch pad arms are raised around the Soyuz TMA-11M rocket.NASA/Bill Ingalls
The Soyuz-FG rocket booster is based on a 50s-era missile design and has never failed once in 42 launches.AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky
It takes six hours for a Soyuz spacecraft to get from Baikonur to the International Space Station, which orbits 230 miles above earth. The crew on this particular mission will spend six months in space.AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel
The Soyuz TMA-20 approaches the International Space Station.NASA
The Soyuz descent module is miniscule by comparison with the US space shuttle, and is slowed by a pair of parachutes as it returns to earth.AP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov
Russian search and rescue helicopters fly over Kazakhstan in order to meet the returning space capsule.AP Photo/NASA
One meter above the ground, the Soyuz descent module fires thrusters to allow for a soft landing.AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel
Search and rescue crews meet the descent module.AP Photo/Shamil Zhumatov
Like a beached whale, the Soyuz capsule lays on its side, its three occupants awaiting retrieval by a ground crew.AP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov
After months in space, visitors to the International Space Station, unaccustomed to gravity, must be carried away from the landing site.AP Photo/Shamil Zhumatov
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano on return from the ISS: pale, exhausted, alive.AP Photo/Shamil Zhumatov