Marcus Bicknell joins SES in Baikonour where old and new worlds are found side by side.
The Chinese first used internal-combustion rocket propulsion for military and pyrotechnic purposes in the 13th century. In 1942, a V2 from Pennemunde was the first to leave the earth’s atmosphere. Rockets, from this old world, are still the engine room of putting satellites into space.
But the satellites themselves are the new world, the silent and distant heart of multi-channel television which gives such joy to TV homes worldwide, to broadcasters and to Premier League football clubs. Launching them is an old world of Newton’s 2nd and 3rd laws, of multi-stage expendable rockets, and for me, for a week in November, an old world of Baikonour, where the Russians, on October 4, 1957, beat the Americans to put the first ever satellite – Sputnik – into orbit. Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961, became the first human in space and the first to orbit the Earth. Those Russian dogs got into space before him, but more of that later.
How could I resist an invitation from SES Astra to accompany VIP clients and press to the launch of Astra 1M on the Proton rocket from the very same Baikonur Cosmodrome in November? Three days in St Petersburg contrasted the glory of Catherine the Great and the Tsars with the economic and cultural gloom of the Communist era… and with the oligarchy, tourism and skewed capitalism of the Putin era. A 48-hour whirlwind charter jet trip to Baikonour, a further four hours East, revealed to us an extraordinarily desolate landscape, the massively-built Soviet military rocketry (now also so ably deployed for the benefit of commercial satellite operators) and the sullen glory of a night-time launch through dense low-lying fog into a starry sky. We saw 4 tons of multi-channel TV satellite for continental Europe thrust into space by 700 tons of rocket, of which close to three quarters was just the fuel.
The anecdotes and artifacts of Baikonour are more like an Isaac Asimov space fiction novel than 21st century reality. Baikonour, 5,500 square kilometres big, is an enclave of Russia wholly inside Kazakhstan. It needs to be that big because booster rockets and stages of the rockets fall back to earth as early as two minutes after launch so one hopes that no humans are underneath the flight path. It’s easier for the NASA at Cape Canaveral and for Ariane at Kourou on the North coast of South America because the debris falls in the ocean where a Notice to Seamen is enough to be pretty certain that the coast is clear, if you get my drift.
When one of the journalist guests on the Astra trip, Der Spiegel’s chief scientific writer, Hilmar Schmundt, told me that nomads lived in discarded rocket outers and that brigands of the recycling world stripped fallen parts of their valuable metals, I thought he was pulling my leg. I was reminded of the 1988 occasion when two sweaty and bedraggled wags sat down to breakfast at the Kourou hotel where we were staying and who discussed loudly, to the astonishment of the other guests, the effort entailed in rowing out to retrieve the pieces of the Ariane rocket we had seen launched.
I should not have doubted the man from Der Spiegel.
Here is the photo to show the work of the Norwegian Jonas Bendiksen who spent eight years in the steppes of Kazakhstan with his camera. The rocket wrecks (his words) provide precious raw materials like titanium and aluminum that can be transformed into hard currency, or can be used for shelter, homes, cooking pots, shovels and other tools. “To compete with other marauding bands in the wilderness, one Viktor Goga works on his contacts in Baikonur mission control. Before each launch Viktor’s informants tell him the trajectory of the launch, the timing of the separation of the early stages and where the used but precious rocket stages will probably impact the earth. To stake their claim, Viktor and his men wait in the right spot.” To find out how Jonas felt out in the open waiting for a couple of hundred tons of metal to fall out of the sky, you’ll have to read his book Satellites, Photographs from the Fringes of the Former Soviet Union.
Less dramatic but just as charming is the dog that comes sniffing at the VIP arrivals at the wilderness airstrip. We remember that Laika became the first living Earth-born creature (other than microbes) in orbit, aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Many Baikonour dogs went into space between 1951 and the late ’60s, and many of them came back. As they were all chosen from wild dogs off the steppes of Baikonour, several of them were clever enough to escape from the Cosmodrome pen before the countdown commenced and disappear whence they came. Rumour has it that at least one dog escaped after orbiting the earth and sired the present pack. When security guards offer a caress to the lone dog at the airport and call “Laika, Laika” we know that the mystical power of the place is strong.
And mystique brings me to the reason for writing this piece. Old technology? How long will expendable rockets be used for putting men and equipment into space? Can we expect Oribtal and other commercial companies to perfect launch of bigger payloads from under the belly of a jumbo jet? Or can we expect Arthur C. Clarke’s other Great Prediction to come true? It was he who predicted in 1947 that geostationary satellites would broadcast around the globe. So why should we doubt his stunning description in The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and in 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) of tethered space towers stretching from the surface of the earth into space? The concept of a space elevator dates back to 1895, when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed a compression structure (that is, a free-standing tower) reaching from the surface of Earth to geostationary orbit 36,000km away. Today there’s a Japanese technological road map that calls for building a space elevator and a space solar power system by 2030, a NASA projection (picture, right) that the elevator would take shape in 200 years or so, and an annual conference in Seattle to mull it all over.
Arthur C. Clarke argued that it would cost about $1000 to get a man into orbit against the $100 million dollars in a rocket today. He quipped that the first space elevator would be built “about 50 years after everyone stops laughing.” The limiting factors are the strength of the materials needed, the anchoring to the ground, and the elevator needed to get men up there. “Hey, I need the exercise, I’ll walk”, said the couch potato watching High Definition television.
With thanks to Stern Magazine,
to Jonas Bendiksen (whose book Satellites, Photographs from the Fringes of the Former Soviet Union you should buy)
and to SES Astra for the experience.