Twenty Years Later, Kazakhstan Waits (and Waits) for Second Cosmonaut’s Flight

Soyuz rocket

For more than 50 years, thousands of rockets have thundered from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, sending a series of historic firsts in space:  satellite (Sputnik), human (Yuri Gagarin), space station (Salyut 1), lunar probes and more  Hundreds of cosmonauts have lifted off from the cosmodrome and landed to hero’s welcomes on the Kazakh steppes since 1961.

But in all time, and in all those flights, how many ethnic Kazakhs have ventured out into humanity’s final frontier?

One. Un. Uno. Ein. Один.

And that’s is not sitting very well with the nation’s first cosmic voyager, Tokhtar Aubakirov:

“No one will fly for the nearest 2-3 years. I am upset by this fact,” Aubakirov said, answering journalists’ questions about the time when the Kazakh citizens’ will get a chance to be on space flights.

This issue has been raised on different levels in Kazakhstan for several years.

“I believe that Kazakhstan’s manned space flights have future. We must go further”, the astronaut said.

Aubakirov soared into space on Oct. 2, 1991, aboard Soyuz TM-13 for an eight-day mission to the Mir space station. The flight was one of the last gasps of the crumbling Soviet Union, which was steadily losing its republics to independence. Aubakirov was rushed onto the flight without being full qualified as a cosmonaut, part of an effort by Moscow to curry favor with Kazakhstan, where its main rocket base of Baikonur was located.

The flight did nothing to halt the breakup of the empire, which was effectively dissolved on Dec. 16 when Kazakhstan became the last of the republics to declare its independence. However, Russia was able to conclude a long-term lease on Baikonur with the newly-independent country, allowing it to continue launching rockets from the spaceport.

By the time Aubakirov flew, flights to space had become a commodity. He flew with aloft with Austrian cosmonaut Franz Viehböck, whose country had paid $7 million for the trip. Other foreign astronauts who flew to Mir at around the same time included British chemist Helen Sharman and German cosmonaut Klaus-Dietrich Flade.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse and the chaos wreaked by economic reform in Russia, seats aboard Soyuz became a cash business, with intrepid billionauts and NASA paying an ever increasing price to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The American space agency is being billed more than $50 million per seat.

And that’s exactly the problem that cash poor Kazakhstan is experiencing. A Kazakh cosmonaut was to have flown in 2009; however, the flight was canceled after the government had trouble coming up with the money in time. Instead, the seat was sold to wealthy Cirque du Soleil Founder Guy Laliberte.

Aubakirov said that today two Kazakhs were trained and were ready to fly into space, but due to lack of proper funding, this question has been postponed for an indefinite period.

“These are two of our guys. The first one is Aydin Aimbetov. He works in the national space agency. The second one is Mukhtar Aymahanov. He intends to take Russian citizenship, because he thinks that he will be able to fly into space from this country soon,” Aubakirov said.

Kazakhstan has a small space agency that is making efforts to build up its domestic space capabilities. Kazkosmos has signed cooperative deals with foreign companies, some of which require these entities to help the country to train space engineers and technicians. Kazakhstan also has schools in Baikonur and Almaty that are educating students for work in the space industry.

However, Aubakirov says that more money is needed for his country to have a strong space effort. Until that funding is found, Kazakhstan will continue to be a place that foreigners go to leave the Earth and to return to it.