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.