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The Russian-born, London-based computer programmer had wanted to see this spectacle since he was a boy. As the engines lit up the sky and shook various VIPs into silence, here he was standing on the same stretch of steppe that saw Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin make history. Eight minutes and 45 seconds after blasting off from the Russian-leased desert spaceport in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz capsule — carrying two Russians and an American — separated from the rocket and safely entered orbit en route to the International Space Station.
The crowd cheered. A few bottles of vodka slipped from hand to hand. About 20 miles away, David and Susan Doig were straining to see the launch from their hotel balcony in the town closest to the cosmodrome, also called Baikonur. Kazakhstan has long talked of turning Baikonur into a tourist destination. But access is uncertain for visitors hoping to see rockets blast off from the historic cosmodrome, and any serious expansion of tourism still faces significant hurdles.
Astana has little control over Baikonur, which is leased to Russia until That price does not cover transportation, but does include a room and three hearty heaps of mystery meat each day at the ageing Tsentralnaya Hotel. She stressed, though, that Tour Service told them that permission to enter the heavily guarded cosmodrome was not guaranteed.
Baikonur the town formerly Leninsk has retained its curious status as a closed, Russian-administered city within Kazakhstan. And alone it has little to draw tourists. The settlement — which dates from the s and is now home to roughly 70, inhabitants — is cleaner than the average small Russian or Kazakh city, and has a few monuments of note, such as early rocket prototypes, as well as a small museum. But it lacks many of the striking Socialist Realist statues and mosaics celebrating the Soviet space programme that one can see in Moscow, or other formerly Soviet cities.
The town feels depressed; the population has shrunk since the s and locals fear what will happen in the years to come. Local Kazakhs and Russians use bitter ethnic stereotypes to complain about each other. For now, Russian police hunker down at a police station surrounded by barbed wire. Most of the noteworthy sites are at the cosmodrome, a stretch of flat desert larger than Delaware.