Decrepit Baikonur is America’s Only Gateway to ISS

Soyuz_Expedition30The New York Times has a rather depressing story on the increasingly decrepit state of the Russian-run city of Baikonur, which supports the once-might cosmodrome where Yuri Gagarin roared off into space.

On a sultry desert evening, as bats fluttered about this town’s riverfront park, a man emerged from a reedy marsh carrying a bundle of grass tied with twine.

Setting it down to brush himself off, he explained that he was keeping a calf in the courtyard of an apartment building across town, where he had settled in recently after the previous occupants, engineers with the Russian space program, moved out.

Baikonur, in remote western Kazakhstan, was once the pride of the Soviet Union, the home of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the launching site of Sputnik, the dog Laika and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. But today, nomadic herders from the nearby steppe are moving into abandoned buildings.

That is just one of the signs of the city’s long fade into the sunset of post-Soviet social and economic problems, which are all the more remarkable given that much of the world, including the United States, still relies on Baikonur for manned space launchings. The only other site for such liftoffs is in Jiuquan, in the Gobi Desert in China…

Along with the squatting herders, day laborers and market traders stroll the streets, with only the occasional aging Russian engineer visible.

Writer Andrew E. Kramer nailed it. Baikonur is emblematic of a space program still trying to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. With Russian focused on building the new Vostochny spaceport, conditions at Baikonur will likely continue to deteriorate.

And yet, the entire future of America’s $100 billion investment in the International Space Station is dependent upon on a program with worn out physical facilities, poor quality control and an aging workforce with few replacement workers in sight.

Meanwhile, Congress hates the commercial crew program so much that it under funds the effort year after year while extending our reliance on the Russians at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Congress needs to stop f***ing around. It needs to get serious about restoring our ability to launch astronauts into space. The stupidity of Congress’s approach to this issue defies belief.