Living the Kazakh life: The last days of astronauts before flying into space

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Perhaps it’s the bleak, Soviet-style block apartments. It could be the dust-blown, almost featureless landscape. Or maybe it’s the scraggly trees that eke out their meager existence in Baikonur, with their lower trunks painted white so the bark does not crack during the bitter winter freezes. This lonely town in southern Kazakhstan is not one of planet Earth’s garden spots.

As they began to build a spaceport to launch first satellites and then humans into space, the Soviets chose this desolate area of the Asian steppe in the 1950s both for its remoteness and its access to the Syr Darya River. Amusingly, “Baikonur” means “rich soil,” an appellation that was true for the original Baikonur hundreds of kilometers to the north. To throw off American spies looking for its launch facilities during the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a fake launch site at the real town of Baikonur. Eventually, spy planes observed the southern site and its launches, so the Soviets simply called the new site Baikonur as well.

In the post-Space Shuttle world this camel-trafficked region serves as the launch site for all Russian and US human spaceflights from the very same pad that Yuri Gagarin blasted off of in 1961. On Wednesday, at 7:36pm ET, the latest launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome will carry Expedition 48—Soyuz commander Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos, and engineers Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Kate Rubins of NASA—into space. They will spend about six months on board the International Space Station.

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