Special Operations: The Game Of Cosmodromes

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May 18, 2016: On April 28th Russia carried out its first satellite launch at its new Vostochny space center (Cosmodrome). A Soyuz rocket put three civilian satellite into orbit. This Cosmodrome is in the Russian Far East (Amur Province, just north of Manchuria), unlike the Soviet era site in what is now the independent state of Kazakhstan. Construction of the Amur site began in 2010 as Russia realized Kazakhstan was becoming a very difficult landlord. Construction of Vostochny moved quickly in part because the site used to be Svobodny 18, an ICBM base that was shut down in 1993 as part of the START disarmament treaty. Amur Province was ultimately selected because of weather (it averaged only 50-60 overcast days a year, had a dry climate and calm winds) and the absence of earthquakes. Everything went according to schedule as first launches were planned to begin in 2016. This was made possible by the government acting quickly when signs of corruption periodically surfaced. Three construction executives were arrested for corruption and many others threatened. Construction is still going on, mainly to build equipment and facilities for handling heavier cargoes, including supplies and components for space stations.

Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle. While Plesetsk's location is good for some types of launches (high inclination, polar, and highly elliptical orbits), the place is frozen most of the year and more expensive to operate because of the climate.

In 2013 Russia agreed to remain in the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan after the Kazakh government agreed to reduce its demands for higher rent. Russia had threatened to cut launches at Balkinor from 75 percent of the Russian total to ten percent by the end of the decade. Kazakh originally demanded a lot more money and threatened to shut down Balkinor if the Russians did not pay. Currently Russia pays Kazakhstan $115 million a year for the use of Balkinor, in addition to the $50 million a year spent to maintain the facility. Many Kazakhs saw Balkinor as an ATM and anytime there was a cash shortage, they could make a withdrawal and the Russians would be forced to pay. The Russians convinced the Kazakhs that plans to leave Balkinor were real. It was pointed out that Balkinor where the commercial satellites were launched and Russia sold these “launch services” to a growing list of foreign customers. If Russia paid the higher fees the Kazakhs were demanding the foreign customers would have to pay more than other competitors charged and Russia would have to abandon Balkinor as uneconomical.

Russia had already moved all military launches to the smaller space center at Plesetsk. Russia can turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches but the Kazakhs were finally convinced about this when construction of Vostochny began and moved ahead with unusual speed. Thus the Kazakhs agreed to more reasonable rent and, for the moment, Russia's largest satellite launch site is still in Kazakhstan. With Vostochny now operational the Kazakhs have to pay more attention to being a good landlord.

Founded in 1955 by the Soviet Union, Baikonur was long the main satellite launch facility for the Russians. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur found itself in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. There it became more expensive and difficult for the Russians to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991 but this has led to periodic disputes over lease terms and the danger to locals from launch accidents. These disputes were settled but the costs kept rising. The Russians valued the Baikonur launch site as it is very efficient for some types of launchers (geostationary, lunar, planetary, and ocean surveillance missions, as well as all manned missions). But having your main launch site in a foreign country was seen as untenable. So the Russians began building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. All manned space programs will be moved to Vostochny by 2020. At that point the Russians will be able to abandon Baikonur, even though they have a lease that lasts until 2050. If the Russians left, they would take or destroy all their gear with them. No point in leaving anything to help a competitor launch satellites.

 


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