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The Baikonur Cosmodrome is Russia's largest launch facility. Because of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Baikonur is now in the territory of Kazakhstan, and Russian must negotiate rent for its use.
Construction of the facility began in 1955. In 1957, the Soviet Union announced the first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. In 1960, an explosion on the launch pad killed nearly 100 people. All Soyuz launches to Mir took place at Baikonur. U.S. Mir astronaut Norman Thagard launched aboard a Soyuz, in March 1995, and describes his launch, in this web site.
In his Oral History, former NASA astronaut Joe Engle described Baikonur, Kazakhstan, as "an enormous, vast, desolate" area, and said that the facilities there, "by virtue of the lack of funding, have not been kept up ... and yet the particular facilities that they need to launch vehicles from are operational."
Engle said, "I was impressed. I'll tell you, it reminded me a little bit of Edwards Air Force Base [California], a remote desert-type environment that is remote for a reason. They're launching vehicles that sometimes are not successful so they need a big area where there are not any people around, so they can drop them in the desert and not hurt anybody. They also need an area that is secure, that they can perform tests and things that they don't want to be public domain at the time, just like we do at our remote test facilities."
However, according to Engle, "It was sad to see the facilities that I know at one time were really, really great, really first class - to see them run down and deteriorating. ... I guess [it's] a sign of the times."
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Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty