Prague, 2 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and a host of other dignitaries were on hand today for festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Baikonur cosmodrome.
Built on the barren steppes of Kazakhstan, Baikonur remains the world's largest -- about six times the size of the Moscow metropolitan area -- and most active space launch site.
Baikonur has witnessed many of the major milestones in space exploration, such as when "Sputnik" was launched into orbit around the earth back in 1957.
Baikonur remains the world's largest and most active space launch site.
Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first man to orbit the planet, also began his journey at Baikonur.
The Kazakh cosmodrome is also connected to less well-known pioneers in space exploration, such as the first woman cosmonaut. Valentina Tereshkova made the flight out of the Earth's atmosphere in 1963.
Probes to the Moon, Mars, and Venus all began at Baikonur, greatly enhancing mankind's knowledge of the universe.
While names like "Sputnik," Gagarin, Tereshkova, and others may be connected with Baikonur forever, the name Baikonur itself is somewhat misleading.
The mining town of Baikonur is more than 300 kilometers to the northeast of the cosmodrome. In an age when spy satellites did not yet exist, this was done intentionally to mislead unfriendly governments about the actual location of the site.
Russia continues to use Baikonur despite the fact it is now located in another country. Since 1994, Russia leases Baikonur for $115 million annually. Russia and Kazakhstan recently signed a deal whereby Russia will continue to use Baikonur until 2050.
The director of Russian space agency Roskosmos, Anatoly Perminov, talked about the cosmodrome's importance at today's ceremony. Perminov noted that about 2,500 rocket launches and 3,000 probes and satellite launches have been conducted at Baikonur.
While more than 70 percent of Russian space launches are from Baikonur, all of Russia's manned space flights begin here. This makes Baikonur indispensable not just for Russia.
Crews traveling to the international space station often start their trip here. With the suspension of U.S. space shuttle flights in 2003, Baikonur has carried the full load of supplying the station and bringing new crews to man it.