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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
'Secret' base looks to bright future
By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter, Plesetsk

Launcher (Esa)
Not so long ago, Plesetsk was aiming missiles at the West. Now it launches Western satellites
Many people have heard of Baikonur, from where Gagarin began his historic spaceflight, but few outside Russia will have heard of Plesetsk.

It is the country's second cosmodrome, the only spaceport on the European continent, and, until recently, the busiest in the world.

Once a test site for intercontinental ballistic missiles, its existence was kept secret for decades, and few foreign journalists have visited the place.

Standing on the launch pad is an eerie experience. The dense taiga, ablaze in autumn colour, stretches for as far as the eye can see.

The chill in the air gives a hint of the harsh northern winter to come, when temperatures drop to as low as minus 45C.

It was here, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, that missiles stood loaded with nuclear warheads. The base was on high alert and sirens rang our regularly, calling officers to their positions.

Today, an SS-19 rocket assembled decades ago to serve as a weapon of war stands on the launch pad.

Student puzzle

Reconditioned for peaceful means - to place an Earth-observing satellite into orbit - it is a strange reminder of how much the world has changed since the Cold War.

Plesetsk's secret history began in 1957, when it was chosen as a test and launch centre for intercontinental ballistic missiles under the codename Object Angara.

Map of Plesetsk (BBC)
The complex of some 15 launch pads grew up out of swampland, on the banks of the Yemtsa river, alongside the fledgling town of Mirny.

The site was picked for its remote location, some 800km north of Moscow, which put it within missile range of North America across the Arctic Ocean.

By the early 1960s, Plesetsk was high on the list of suspected ballistic missile sites drawn up by US intelligence. But it took an English physics teacher, Geoffrey Perry, and his students, to solve the mystery, in 1966.

By monitoring the paths of the first satellites launched from the cosmodrome, they deduced that the launches could not have come from Baikonur and pinpointed its exact position.

The secret was out, at least in the West, but the Soviet people were not officially told of the cosmodrome's existence until 1983, in a copy of Pravda.

Rocket launch (Esa)
Rockets launch in the midst of the dense taiga

Eleven years later, by a decree of the Russian President, Plesetsk became a state-operated cosmodrome, remaining under the command of the Russian military but increasingly open to foreign business.

Even today, an air of secrecy pervades the place. When we land near the cosmodrome at a small airfield, men in the uniform of the Russian space guard hurry onboard to brief us.

We are not allowed to take photos from our hotel windows nor pictures from the road. We are forbidden to go to the room of any inhabitant of the town or them to ours. Everywhere we go, there is a guard standing at the end of the corridor.

Most of the town remains off limits to visitors. They can walk around only a small central section and must not stray outside the designated area
After leaving the launch pad, we stop at the gates of the town of Mirny, which means peaceful in Russian.

Home to about 80,000 military staff and their families, at first glance, it seems like any other town, save the austere apartment blocks and lack of road signs.

We are taken to the space museum in the town square, then the kindergarten, where children dressed in traditional clothes sing Russian songs.

Despite the presence of occasional teams of foreign engineers, most of the town remains off limits to visitors. They can walk around only a small central section and must not stray outside the designated area.

The town was never on the map and its inhabitants can still only be officially reached under a military field post number.

Aiming for business

In the evening, we finally get the chance to stroll unaccompanied in the permitted area, between the two hotels that serve Western visitors.

One of the visiting engineers takes us to the local nightclub, where they go to relax after long days working on satellites.

Inside, with its smoke, beer, glittery disco balls and Western pop music, we could be anywhere in the world, least of all in what was once one of the most secret places on the planet.

Memorial (Esa)
Memorial to lost space workers: Despite the problems of the past, the future looks bright for Plesetsk
The next morning, as we are driven out of town in our minibuses, we get our last glimpse of Mirny. We see soldiers lined up around the edge of a square watching dignitaries placing wreaths of flowers at the foot of the central monument.

I find out later that it is the memorial where the 59 soldiers, officers and engineers killed in two disasters at Plesetsk are buried in a mass grave.

They lost their lives when two rockets exploded on the launch pad in 1973 and 1980. The accidents were not revealed to the outside world until the end of the '80s.

Despite its sometimes grim history, the future for Plesetsk seems promising. With concerns about the security of operating the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in now independent Kazakhstan, it could become Russia's primary launch centre.

Plans are afoot to launch Russia's next generation rockets from Plesetsk, and there is even talk of manned spacecraft.

One day, perhaps, it will become as much a household name as Cape Canaveral or Baikonur.

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