Built in 1955 as a test center for the world’s first intercontinental missile, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is closed to outsiders, except during launches with an international crew. Last May, British photographer James Hill, a 14-year resident of Moscow, attended a launch for the first time, and, though he is accustomed to the many murals and statues in Russian cities, he saw something slightly different in Baikonur: “Everything you see,” he says, “is related to space.”
Twenty miles from town, on May 27, 2013, a Soyuz rose majestically on the launch pad. Later, James Hill watched it take off, carrying a Russian, an American, and an Italian to the International Space Station for a four-month stay. “It was a night launch,” he says. “You can feel the ground shake when it goes up.”
The Crew of Expedition 36 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineers Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano, lumber into an equipment room at the cosmodrome for a final check of their flightsuits.
Two cadets from the Russian space forces academy pause on their way to an evening concert. “They were at the end of their school period and were dressed up with badges and ribbons for a festive occasion,” says Hill.
Vadim Kozheko, deputy director of the town’s International Space School and a rocket scientist who has worked in Baikonur since 1972, looks over some of the flight hardware on display in the school. The mission of this state school is to prepare its 750 students, ages 11 to 17, to enter universities and space institutes.
A sidewalk along the main street is decorated with double-sided illuminated boxes that, if anyone needs reminding, show off Baikonur’s pride and joy.
Outside a food store, a painting pays homage to Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. “In a lot of Russian cities, you might have murals of factory workers or agricultural workers or soldiers,” says Hill. “In Baikonur, it’s rockets and cosmonauts.”
Three Ways to see a rocket in Baikonur: A child’s slide (and not much else) sits in a makeshift playground just off the main street of Baikonur, formerly known as Leninsk.
On the road leading to the launch complex, a boy plays high up on a girder beneath a derelict Soyuz rocket. The monument honors the Russian space program’s workhorse launcher, which began its service in 1966.