On August 11, a Russian RS-18 (Stiletto) inter-continental ballistic missile was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kyzylorda region, symbolizing the expanding Russian-Kazakh cooperation in space exploration. In recent years Kazakhstan’s government has been repeatedly criticized for failing to make good use of the Baikonur launch site, a unique space center to be envied by other CIS countries. Now Astana has plans to use the facility for a Kazakh space program.
Under the agreement signed in 2000 between Russia and Kazakhstan, Baikonur is leased to Russia for 20 years. Russia agreed to pay an annual rent of $115 million to access the facility. But Kazakh nationalists have strongly questioned how the deal benefits Kazakhstan. They believe that the environmental and economic damages caused by launching Russian spacecrafts outweigh the illusory economic gains. Between 1964 and 1999 more than 20 rockets crashed over Kazakhstan (Turkestan, May 3, 2002). In July 1999, Kazakhstan banned further launches of the Russian “Progress” cargo rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, after a crash of the accompanying Proton rocket scattered its debris across a vast area in central Kazakhstan. The Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan sent a note of protest to the Russian Ambassador, and the government demanded that Russia pay up the millions of outstanding dollars it owed for the use of Baikonur (Panorama, July 16, 1999). The conflict was settled after Russia agreed to pay off its debts.
Despite the disagreements surrounding the Baikonur launch site, Kazakhstan is moving towards using Russian space technology and the cosmodrome to develop its own ambitious space program. In 1998 Meyirbek Moldabekov, the director of the National Aerospace Agency, insisted that Kazakhstan should participate in the international “Sea Launch” project. In April 2001 Kazakhstan drafted its own space research program to be carried out on board the International Space Station (Panorama, April 27, 2001). Kazakhstan also hosted the International Congress of Space Flights in October 2001, which brought together astronauts from all over the world. Kazakh participants first raised their idea of launching Kazakhstan’s own space satellites during the Congress.
While the United States regards Kazakhstan as an important strategic partner in Central Asia, Washington has shown little interest in Astana’s efforts to become a space nation. This neglect leaves Kazakhstan entirely depends on Russian technical assistance.
In order to advance its space program, Astana has had to overlook discrimination against ethnic Kazakhs inside the Russian-controlled Baikonur facility. This tolerance has paid off. Speaking at a recent ministerial meeting, Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov praised cooperation with the Russian “Rossaviakosmos” agency, saying, “The similarity of views of Russia and Kazakhstan allows our country to make a breakthrough in space programs” (Panorama, June 25). During the meeting officials announced that Kazakhstan would launch its first communication satellite in December 2005. The project is estimated to cost $65 million. The experts at the Russian Khrapunov Scientific and Production Center, which offered to manufacture the satellite, believe that the costs will pay off in three years, as the satellite will be used, among other things, to monitor the Caspian environment and to survey Kazakhstan’s perimeter. Kazakhstan’s government has officially stressed that the satellite, as well as other space programs, would not be used for military purposes.
One part of Kazakhstan’s space program is to launch its own astronauts into space. If Astana’s plans continue to go smoothly, Kazakhstan may well become the first Central Asian country to venture into space. Two candidates for the space flights, Mukhtar Aimakhanov and Aidyn Aimbetov, have already begun training at the Russian Cosmonaut Training Center (Panorama, June 25).