Sun Apr 28,11:07 AM ET
By Clara Ferreira-Marques
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Small clumps of steppe grass are the only reminder there was once a lush park in the center of the town of Baikonur, hub of the Soviet Union's pioneering space program.
A decade after the collapse of communism, the slow recovery of the Russian space program has brought no tenants back to the sand-colored apartment blocks stripped bare during the looting that followed Kazakh independence in 1991.
The trickle of people returning to the dusty town, which Russia rents from Kazakhstan under a 1994 agreement, has not restored the population to the 100,000 that lived here during the heyday of Soviet space exploration.
But Baikonur, built on the arid Kazakh steppe two years before the first sputnik, or satellite, was launched into orbit in 1957 and still Russia's main launch pad, is slowly on the mend, longtime residents say.
"There was a time after the fall of the Soviet Union when the town was rudderless. People in the city lived without gas, water, or electricity," said Vladimir Polvektov, head of the Baikonur cosmodrome's safety department, who has lived at the outpost since 1983.
"But things have begun to change. It is a tidy, clean town, and you can walk around safely, day or night."
The town's mayor since 1994, Gennady Dmitriyenko, is not shy about touting Baikonur's progress.
"Before, people came here because they had to," he said. "Those who come now are proud to do so."
Alexander Korchagin, a craft teacher at a Baikonur school, says the town is isolated from many problems plaguing Kazakhstan.
"Things are better here, the pay is better, and there is no nationalism," said Korchagin, an ethnic Russian who moved from southern Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s.
"There are problems here, but there were different problems, national and otherwise, at home."
Baikonur, now under joint Russian-Kazakh administration, has not yet solved many of its crippling economic problems.
Russia's space industry is still far from the resource-rich program of the Soviet era. The number of rockets lifted into the skies above Baikonur each year has fallen sharply.
"We now have roughly six launches a year, but we would need at least nine to break even," said Igor Barmin, head of the top launch pad design bureau.
"At one stage, we had 25 launches a year. Now we can only dream of that."
Although the cosmodrome itself, 18 miles from the town, is bustling with military officials and scientists on launch days, many of its buildings have been abandoned to the elements for lack of money.
"We have experienced staff, but unfortunately very few young people. Quite simply, the sector pays very little," said Barmin, whose bureau designed Russia's top launch pads.
Fee-paying amateur astronauts, who pay a reported $20 million, or enough to cover the cost of a launch, may help the Russian agency get back on its feet.
So far only two, South African Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, and U.S. millionaire Dennis Tito, have come up with the cash. The next tourist, still to be named, is expected to blast off in October.
The city, 155 miles from the nearest town and still guarded by military roadblocks, has been slow to capitalize on more standard space-oriented tourism.
"We have transport links, hotels, we can take tourists any time," Dmitriyenko boasts. "Only yesterday, 43 tourists arrived on a charter plane."
The only tourists standing on the viewing platform watching Shuttleworth blast off last week arrived in Baikonur with U.S.-based Space Adventures. They paid the company, which brokered both Tito's and Shuttleworth's flights, $2,500 for a two-day stay.
Few of the city's hotels, built to house military officers or construction workers in Soviet days, are up to Western standards.
The biggest blow to Baikonur will come when Russia decides to proceed with plans to move most — and eventually all — of its launches inside Russia proper, to its Plesetsk base just south of the Arctic Circle.
Although eager to move its space operations back inside its borders and save the $115 million annual rent it pays Kazakhstan, Russia says the move is not imminent.
Without launch facilities for either the Soyuz rocket, Russia's workhorse for manned flights, or for the Proton booster used for cargo launches, a full shift is impossible in the near term.
Only military launches can feasibly be moved from Baikonur for now and the project has been put on hold for lack of funds.
"Of course, it would be great to move launches inside Russia," said Oleg Kononenko, one of Russia's 37-member team of cosmonauts. "But we need the infrastructure."
In the meantime, the city's joint-administration agreement remains a rare example of close Russian cooperation with a former Soviet state, although not without hiccups.
Russia and Kazakhstan exchanged harsh words when a Proton-K heavy booster rocket crashed in 1999, sending burning debris and potentially hazardous rocket fuel down on the Kazakh steppe.
Kazakhstan imposed a temporary ban on Russian launches, including supply shuttles for the Mir station, since downed in the Pacific Ocean. Russia eventually paid compensation — and overdue rent on the Baikonur base.