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Ready for lift-off on the Kazakh steppe

26 March 09 00:24 GMT

By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC News, Baikonur cosmodrome

Despite the freezing wind of the Central Asian steppe, photographers have been trying to get the best shots of a Soyuz spacecraft being slowly transported by rail to the launch site.

This is the Baikonur Cosmodrome - the world's largest and oldest space launch facility.

Every launch here follows the same ritual. It starts with assembling the rocket at the Installation and Test Building three days before lift-off.

At 0700 sharp, two days prior to launch, the assembled rocket is transported by railway in a horizontal position to the launch site. The train moves at 5 km/h (3 mph) - an average human walking speed.

Originally, the founder of the Soviet space programme Sergei Korolyov used to personally lead the procession to the launch pad by walking ahead of the train.

At the launch pad, engineers slowly raise it to its vertical starting position.

"Most Soyuz spacecraft take off from Site Number 1, also known as the Gagarin start," says Igor Barmin, chief engineer of the launch pad.

"Among the nine launch complexes at Baikonur, the Gagarin Start has been used the most. So far more than 400 rockets have taken off from this position."

Space tourism

The next Soyuz launch is scheduled for 1149 GMT on Thursday.

Expedition 19 will include Russian commander Gennady Padalka, US flight engineer Michael Barratt and US businessman and space tourist Charles Simonyi. Its destination is the International Space Station (ISS).

This is software billionaire Charles Simonyi's second mission into space. He previously flew to the ISS in 2007, for which he paid $24m. This latest journey is costing him $35m.

But Simonyi could also be the last space tourist travelling to the ISS because there may not be enough room on board for future space adventurers.

In 2010 the US space shuttle programme is expected to retire for at least four years, which means that Nasa astronauts will depend on Russian Soyuz rockets to send their crews to the ISS.

Secret location

Baikonur Cosmodrome covers almost 7,000 sq km of Kazakh steppe, three times the size of Luxembourg. The entire centre includes nine launch complexes and is leased to Russia until 2050.

Established in the 1950s as a top-secret facility, Baikonur was originally built to develop and test the largest range of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

To keep the location as secret as possible, the name Baikonur was deliberately chosen by the Soviets to be misleading. The real Baikonur is a village in northern Kazakhstan, several hundred miles away from the actual cosmodrome.

The official name of the centre was State Test Range No 5 and is located in Tyuratum, southern Kazakhstan.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union the cosmodrome fell under the ownership of Kazakhstan.

But an agreement was reached in the 1990s for Russia to pay an annual fee for renting the complex, currently worth $115m.

The former military facility has been fully transformed into a civilian launch pad, but it is still one of the most difficult places to visit in Kazakhstan, requiring permission from the Russian Federal Space Agency.

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