Nov. 20, 2023
Mastering the Cosmos from the Baikonur Cosmodrome
During the Cold War, the Baikonur Cosmodrome was a well-guarded Soviet military facility. In 2000, it became a major international spaceport. This transformation made the launch of Soyuz to the International Space Station (ISS) a public spectacle in situ, attracting aerospace professionals and space enthusiasts, for many of whom witnessing this technological event was the closest they could get to the cosmos. In 2017, I joined the visitor congregation that assembled for the takeoff of the Soyuz MS-05 mission. We watched the spacecraft rollout and its erection on the launch pad, attended the press-conference, and toured selected sites at the cosmodrome and in Baikonur while being presented an ample narrative conveying Soviet achievements in space. Obliterating distance, this metaphoric movement between the living and the dead aided the Russian national imaginary of human spaceflight as a time-honoured Russian “tradition,” as the guide escorting our group conferred, that the country sustained despite the odds of the Soviet collapse.
The representational practices deployed by the Russian hosts as part of the international space operations have refashioned the space-time around Baikonur into co-existent realities, bringing together the Soviet past that made the cosmodrome’s location a proxy for outer space based on its emptiness and hostile environment and utopian futures. In my analysis of these co-existent realities, I focus on local socio-political and ecological histories, which were shaped by familiar earthly matters, such as labor, state power, colonialism, and ecological imagination, leading to question the space age’s narrative as the state of soon-to-be-leaving Earth. The recognition of these histories and ecologies begets new perspectives on the space age, including the one that I pursue in my research: regardless of what happens next in terms of achievements in space, the space age begins and ends down on Earth.
The story of Baikonur is a cautionary tale in this respect. In Soviet political discourse, spaceflight was dubbed as osvoenie (mastering) the cosmos. Denoting a sociopolitical process of incorporation of new territories into the empire, this Russian term conveyed space exploration’s purported goal of human evolutionary expansion into outer space. But in the end, the only new settlement the Soviet effort in space produced is the one on the left bank of the Syr-Darya River – now the town of Baikonur, the world’s first space colony. The Soviet space program shaped life experiences of hundreds of thousands of conscripts, army officers, and civilians who worked at the cosmodrome during the Cold War. Their labor was a state secret in the USSR, concealing the social reality behind the Soviet effort to bring the cosmos into human habitat. This strategic absence from public knowledge helped sustain the Soviet utopian dreams borne of the space age, creating the dialectical tension between the acts of leaving and dwelling at the cosmodrome: if leaving the planet from nowhere in particular pointed to the utopian future, dwelling there defied the very idea of that future.
Today, the town of Baikonur is a blue-collar community – a civilian version of its former military self – whose relation to space activities “is at once pivotal and peripheral,” which is how Peter Redfield described the town in French Guiana, servicing the space launch base (2000, 146). This continuous double-edged positioning of the cosmodrome and its people intrigued me as a source of tension between dwelling and leaving at this footstep to outer space, pointing to the need to examine the relationship of the historical and the imaginary within the space age. I approach historical experiences at the cosmodrome from a dwelling perspective, treating humans and environment as “one indivisible totality” with interdependent futures (Ingold 2002, 19). Environment does not pre-date the act of occupying it, Tim Ingold argues; instead, “the world continually comes into being around the inhabitant[s]” as part of “their practical engagement with their surroundings,” shaping both the environment and human perceptions of it (Ingold 2002, 153-54). The labor of dwelling around the cosmodrome linked nature, society, and outer space, expanding the ontologies of modernity and empire into the formerly acquired but hitherto underexploited (empty) land. The changes generated by this expansion are as significant as the frontier experiences of those who pursued it. My focus is on the laborious effort of creating a sense of normal life around the cosmodrome, the key purpose of which during the Cold War was to test the limits of technological terror conducted on Earth via space. Within this militarised domain, dwelling connoted less the process of human adaptation to environment and more the newcomers’ perception of local landscape they were to suppress or alter. Conferring geographic isolation and hostile nature, this enduring perception made the cosmodrome’s location a proxy for outer space.
I situate this imaginative geography within the dialectic of the Soviet policy of paranoid secrecy and ostentatious public spectacle that mediated human-environmental relations and conditions of labor at the cosmodrome to convey the earthly nature of the space age. For a brief moment, the Soviet space program signified human victory over nature, poised to push the boundaries of modernity even further. Yet Soviet successes in space were short-lived. The Soviet space program ended even before the country’s disintegration in 1991, leaving behind massive amounts of the military-industrial waste. From the postcolonial perspective, this turn of events is a usual part of modernity’s cyclical movement rather than a distinctly Soviet failure in space. As Ben Okri (1991) has suggested, every modality of modern life imposed on colonized spaces and their postcolonial equivalents sooner or later is erased, so that despite all the violence committed in the name of progress, these spaces move through the states of perceived emptiness (or another form of deficiency) to creation and destruction, and back to emptiness. This insight captures the cosmodrome’s development phases, from the Soviet space pioneers’ encounter with their new surroundings to the termination of late Soviet space projects and the demolition of military infrastructure after the Cold War. It also helps account for the cosmodrome’s post-Soviet transformation from a secret Soviet polygon intended for missile testing and spacecraft launch into an international spaceport and the object of the visitor gaze.
Human spaceflight enforced technology’s “social promise to break with the ‘natural’ state of things” (Buck-Morss 1991, 64). But what happens when this social promise as well as the myth converging human and technological progress fail? Once it is “condemned in one configuration” this myth is “redeemed in another” (ibid.: 109). In the West, entrepreneurial enthusiasm for human extraterrestrial expansion replaced the Cold War state fever. On the Russian side, the loss of the cosmodrome created the opportunities to free the country from the historical material that poorly fits the elite narratives of the space age and move forward its ambitions in space elsewhere. As our bus passed a cluster of abandoned and dilapidating buildings at the cosmodrome, occupying the territory the size of Delaware state, I wondered aloud if Roscosmos should do something about the material remains amassed there. The person sitting beside me, a French pilot who trained to become an astronaut, asked me back: “Why should it?” And then he said: “they have already moved on to the next big thing,” referring to the cosmodrome under construction in the Russian Far East. “Closer to the stars,” I murmured, repeating the sign I had seen earlier. “Exactly, it’s always to the stars!” he said, turning his passionate gaze to a horizon seen through the smeary windshield of the old bus.
Buck-Morss, Susan. 1991. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Ingold, Tim. 2002. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.
Okri, Ben. 2015. The Famished Road. New York: Random House. First published 1991.
Redfield, Peter. 2000. Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana. University of California Press.