The Strange, Sad City of Baikonur, the World's Gateway to the Heavens

It is from this remote city in southern Kazakhstan that humans first sent a satellite, an animal, and a person into orbit. But it didn't get an MRI machine until 2011.
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When three astronauts rocketed off the Earth and headed to the International Space Station, they left from southern Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, on the outskirts of a city of the same name. The city, with a population around 36,000, has some major claims to fame: the first artificial satellite (Sputnik), animal (Laika), and person (Yuri Gagarin) launched into orbit from this place.

Today, Baikonur is one of only two places on Earth with the facilities to send humans into orbit (Jiuquan, in China's Gobi desert, is the other; America launched its final shuttle from Cape Canaveral in 2011). With every manned-spaceflight launch every few months, and every return, we see in the news a few pictures of this remote place, but the life of the city beyond the Cosmodrome -- its residents, its politics, its culture -- remain a mystery. Now the New York Times has provided a closer look, and the picture we see is a sad one: For all the investment in manned spaceflight going to Baikonur (in both a financial and a cultural sense), the city is struggling. "Nomadic herders from the nearby steppe are moving into abandoned buildings," the Times's Andrew E. Kramer writes. This city, the home of some of our planet's most advanced space science, did not get its first MRI machine until 2011.

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The town exists in a strange state of political suspension. When the Cosmodrome was built, it was squarely in USSR territory. Today that land is Kazakhstan, and Russia rents the town from the Kazakh government for $115 million a year. The mayor is Russian, Kramer writes, as are "nearly all the high-paying space jobs." When the Soviet Union dissolved, the town was about two-thirds Russian, one-third Kazakh. Now it's the opposite. This, coupled with the inequality, has created "a low boil of ethnic tension," Kramer reports. "In 2011, young Kazakh men ran in a mass down a central street yelling, 'The head is a dog,' " referring to the mayor.

Meanwhile, the space programs that use the Cosmodrome are spending huge sums of money. In May, NASA "extended the contract for astronaut launchings for a year, until mid-2017, for an additional $424 million." Astronauts and other NASA personnel stay in a hotel on the town's outskirts, "where the cheapest room is about $340 a night, rarely venturing into the town." To get to the launch site, Kramer says the astronauts must ride over a pothole-marked, rutted road, lined by grazing camels. In miniature, this is the unevenness of progress in our time.

"It's painful for me to think of my town," the editor of the local newspaper tells Kramer. "We are not ahead of the planet in anything but space."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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