Busts and statues of heroes of the cosmos, buildings decorated with frescoes representing spacecraft, replica rockets: in the snow-covered streets of Baikonur, a Kazakh town near a famous Russian cosmodrome, space is everywhere.
“All this, people have done with their own hands, many generations have worked a lot,” Malik Moutaliev, 67, former chief architect of this city of 76,000 inhabitants lost in the steppes, proudly told AFP. from Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia.
But the city of Baikonur, whose land is leased by Moscow, like the cosmodrome located about thirty kilometers away, is threatened with decline and is looking for a future that could well pass through space tourism, in full revival.
Founded in 1955 on the banks of the Syr-Darya River, the town of Baikonur originally consisted of simple barracks housing the workers who, in the greatest secrecy, built the launching base.
It is from this cosmodrome that the USSR accomplished its great exploits in the space race: the sending of the first Sputnik satellite (1957), the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1961) and the first cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova ( 1963).
In the years that followed, the city of Baikonur, then named Leninsk, experienced its golden age. Thousands of space program employees, considered the scientific elite of the USSR, settled there with their families in typically Soviet concrete buildings.
“There were a lot of graduates,” recalls Oksana Slivina, a 57-year-old teacher who moved to Baikonur thirty years ago when her father, a soldier, was transferred there.
For a long time, the city, freezing in winter and stifling in summer, was an ultra-secure site closed to foreigners. Even today, special permission is required to enter.
– “Many are leaving” –
With the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Baikonur suddenly found itself in Kazakhstan. The city experienced a dark period: thousands of inhabitants returned to Russia, while the Russian space sector suffered serious budgetary difficulties.
“Our goal was not to let the city fall to pieces and to preserve it so that it can develop later. I think we have succeeded,” notes the former architect Malik Moutaliev.
Baikonur and its cosmodrome are leased to Kazakhstan at a high price via a contract that runs until 2050. The city and its economy still benefit from regular launches operated by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Moscow, however, inaugurated in 2016 its own cosmodrome in the Far East, named Vostotchny and intended to replace Baikonur in the long term, even if its development suffers from significant delays linked to the endemic corruption of the Russian space sector.
The sending of two Japanese tourists to space on Wednesday by Roscomos from Baikonur, which marks Moscow’s return to this lucrative sector after 12 years of absence, nevertheless raises hopes in the city.
“Our city has literally become a dormant city. We do not produce anything, we are a subsidized city, we only live thanks to the cosmos. Tourism would give us a big boost,” said Malik Moutaliev.
Oksana Slivina considers that it would be a shame not to take advantage of the iconic status of “the city of your heart” to attract more visitors.
“We must of course invest a lot of money here in order (…) to have something else to show than launching pads,” says the teacher.
In the meantime, the municipality of Baikonur, located far from everything, is struggling to keep its young people.
“Many leave. Usually parents stay because they are well paid, but their children go to Russia or elsewhere,” said Georgi Iline, a 21-year-old student who also hopes to leave.
Despite everything, Malik Moutaliev remains confident and looks to the future with his head held high.
“Our city has survived a lot of things: Perestroika, the breakup of the Soviet Union, electricity shortages,” he lists. “We got over it all.”