The fate of Baikonur, which is, without question, uncertain, may in fact, according to Russia's foreign affairs minister, Sergey Lavrov, be far from the disaster that many think. Last week a new controversy around Russia's main cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, hit the headlines. The Izvestia newspaper published a note from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry announcing the Kazakh Government's decision to cut the number of Proton launches in 2013 to 12 instead of the 17 requested by Russia. It went on to suggest that the move might threaten other joint Russian-Kazakh projects, such as the Baiterek and Dnepr programs.
Anyone eagerly watching the situation for further developments may now feel a sense of disappointment, as tensions over the issue began to ease towards the end of last week. Both Russian officials, and their Kazakh counterparts, were quick to point out that the Baikonur controversy would not affect relations the two states. There is also a further Kazakh visit coming up on January 30 which should bring even more clarity to the situation, this time by the vice minister who also co-chairs the Baikonur committee.
This is not the first, and almost certainly not the last, time that Baikonur has been at the heart of apparent, or even actual, disputes between the two Nations. Previously both sides have always successfully resolved disagreements to their mutual satisfaction; there can be little doubt that this occasion will be any different, because of the underlying truth that Baikonur is essential to both.
On the other hand the status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely. With the construction of Russia's new Vostochny cosmodrome underway, Baikonur will inevitably lose its long held status as the centre of Russia's space program, if indeed it keeps a role at all. With annual rent for the site topping the $100 million mark, the Kazakh space base represents a significant burden on the state budget, essentially double the future cost of the new cosmodrome.
However forecasts of Baaikonur's demise may be a little premature as no launches from Vostochny have yet been scheduled, and the primary rocket launcher it is intended to host, namely Angara, has yet even to make its maiden flight. Then there is Proton, the heaviest Russian launcher available, which, despite its toxic components, can only blast off from Baikonur, which is also the primary facility delivering cosmonauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Hence, the Baikonur launch pads remain vital to the majority of Russian activities in space.
An imperfect equation with many unknown quantities, the Baikonur problem is unlikely to be solved by simple solutions. Several coming events will affect it greatly, such as, for example, the South Korean launch scheduled on January 30. That lift-off will essentially be driven by the first stage of Angara, so it will also make an important contribution to Russian space developments.