MOSCOW - In December, the Kazakh space agency announced that it was going to be reevaluating the terms under which Russia leases the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s largest facility for space launches -- and the only cosmodrome that Russia uses to launch manned space flights.

The announcement sent a wave of panic through the Russian space program, and both Russia's vice-premier Igor Shuvalov and his Kazakh counterpart Kairat Kelimbetov spoke out on the issue. 

Though it now looks like the lease agreement, which is supposed to extend to 2050, is not going to be cancelled, it sheds new light on a very strategic agreement. One thing is clear: Russia is not ready to say goodbye.

The rental agreement between the two countries was signed in 2004, but as early as 2009 the Kazakh space agency – KazKosmos – started to demand a reevaluation of the agreement, with the primary goal that Kazakhstan be allowed full and equal use of the complex.

According to Kremlin sources, no one is planning to change the current “rules of the game.”

“Changing the conditions is not part of our plans, nor the plans of our Kazakh colleagues – both Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbaev support that position,” says the source.

The two sides depend on one another. Kazakhstan might be the owner of the Baikonur cosmodrome, which was built in the 1950s, but it does not have the resources to keep it in working order alone. On the other hand, Russia desperately needs the Baikonur cosmodrome, since it only has one other launch facility, which is only for military purpose.

The cosmodrome includes around 10 major structures over more than 6700 square kilometers, all of which require periodic upgrades and repair. According to the current agreement, Russia is required to spend at least $115 million on upkeep per year, as well as to keep the cosmodrome in use. “We are spending our money not just for our own space program. International agreements are also very important,” says a source from RosCosmos. “As soon as we leave, the cosmodrome will die, and we can’t let that happen. We have already spent too much for that.” 

Sad condition

Planes from the Astronaut Preparation Center land at the airport of the small town of Baikonur. In the past half year, the airport has changed, adding modern transport and decor, and the whole building is being reconstructed. “No one used to think about this before, and to tell the truth, the airport was in a sad condition,” says one of the customs workers. “Now, when international delegations visits, we aren’t ashamed anymore.” From there, it’s a 40-minute drive to the cosmodrome.

Leonid Goryushkin, vice-director of a factory on the cosmodrome that produces rockets, explains that the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, were difficult times. “It was tough with money before, but now there’s at least a little to go around.” Part of that money comes from commercial launches – one time, a rocket was entirely painted with an ad for Marlboro cigarettes.

That is part of why Kazakhstan’s demand that Russia reduce the number of launches from 17 to 12 in 2013 is so unwelcome. No matter how much more money Russia earmarks for the cosmodrome, it is not realistic to continue operating the facility without commercial launches. 

These aren’t the only challenges at Baikonur. For one, the average age of the people who work there is over 50. According to one of the managers, there are several reasons for that. First of all, the work is essentially round-the-clock, there are no set 8-hour workdays. It’s not well paid, although everyone has high educational qualifications.

Russia is working on ways to reduce its reliance on Kazakhstan. Most importantly, it is working on building a new, “Eastern” cosmodrome, which would be first post-Soviet launch facility in Russia.

In a speech in January, the head of RosCosmos explained, “We need to have access to whatever space vessels we want, with any orbit or decent, independent of any other country’s opinion.”

But the new facility doesn’t exist yet, so Russia has to continue working with the Kazakhs. In the most recent talks between the two vice-premiers, the major conditions of the lease agreement were not revisited, but Russia was forced to give major concessions in some ongoing bilateral space projects.

If the past is any indication, the demands coming from Kazakhstan will only increase. According to our sources, the idea for a joint rights commission on Baikonur came from Moscow – since Moscow has to control the pressure from KazCosmos. Withstanding that pressure is necessary until the Eastern Cosmodrome is functional as a independent launch facility. The first unmanned flight is planned for 2015, while the first piloted launches are not planned until 2018. And all of that assumes that the rocket that Russia intends to use for those launches has been fully worked out by then.