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As Baikonur Cosmodrome became the largest space center in the world, hundreds of kilometers of grasslands downrange from the launch site turned into giant shooting gallery, where spent rocket stages would smash into the ground after separating from space rockets or ballistic missiles. Dozens of impact sites occupied millions of acres of land.
Originally, Soviet authorities would make sure that all spent stages were properly recovered and returned to Baikonur. In July 1956, a detached test station, OIS, subordinated to the chief of the armaments service of Baikonur was formed. It was deployed at the village of Ladyzhenka in the Akmolinsk Region (Oblast) and tasked with the recovery of spent rocket stages. In 1971, the unit was moved to Tselinograd, (Astana).
In May 1960, the OIS-7 base was formed based in Dzhezkazgan, which would be located in the path of the rockets heading to the Earth orbit with the inclination 51.6 degrees, which would eventually become a trajectory of choice for the manned space program.
Yet, another OIS unit was formed in January 1967, with its base in Ust-Kamenogorsk, in the Eastern Kazakhstan Region. It included at least 100 soldiers and sported its own farm.
However as number of launches grew and the secrecy around rocket technology was relaxed, more and more space junk remained rusting in the grasslands. In the 1970s, the construction of the monumental launch complex for the Energia-Buran system prompted the authorities to "cannibalize" the workforce dedicated to the cleanup of drop zones. The Soviet leadership even considered to disband the task force involved in the effort. As a result, countless debris, often containing toxic propellant components, were littering virgin lands of Kazakhstan. Mixed with rising anti-Russian sentiment and ill-informed public opinion about real dangers of rocket debris, this political and environmental minefield finally exploded in the face of Russian officials on the eve of the Soviet collapse at the beginning of the 1990s.
In the spring of 1990, a 500-man-strong battalion was formed to jump-start clean up efforts downrange from Baikonur. According to the leader of the group, considerable progress was made in both cleaning the impact zones and in getting the new experience in the utilization of large pieces of debris. The compaign was repeated in 1991, and, according to its participant, resulted in significant cleanup of impact sites. (233)
During 2009, Russia negotiated with Kazakh government a possibility of establishing a new drop zone in Kazakhstan for orbital launches originating in Baikonur and heading north to reach polar orbit. However, Russian interests apparently came into conflict with other economic activities in the region and environmental concerns. On Sept. 23, 2009, Talgat Musabaev, the chairman of the Kazakh space agency, said that after a year-long discussions, Kazakhstan had rejected a Russian request for new drop zones. At the same time, Musabaev left a door open to negotiations, saying that Kazakhstan had continued working on an agreement for a new drop zone, apparently designated Site 120 and covering Kustanai and Aktyubinsk regions of the country. However, according to Musabaev, two sides were still having key disagreements on the functions of Kazakh state institutions in Baikonur.
The final agreement on the new site was reached only in January 2013, but at an additional price of $460,000 a year for Russia. The document apparently cleared the way for the launch of the Resurs-P satellite. Russian authorities had promised to provide Kazakh government with an environmental impact statement within 30 days after the launch, RIA Novosti reported.
Strela-Kondor mission drop zones
During 2011 several reports surfaced about negotiations between Roskosmos and officials in Chelyabinsk Oblast of Russia on the establishment of a new drop zone for the first stage of the Strela rocket, scheduled to carry the Kondor radar satellite into orbit in 2012. The impact site was expected to be in Nyazepetrovsk Region between towns of Shemakha, Araslanovo, Skaz and Tabuska. However, as it had previously happened in other regions of Russia and Kazakhstan, concerns over the contamination of the pristine environment became a cause of public protests by local population on February 25, 2011, the official RIA Novosti news agency reported. As a result, local authorities reportedly rejected the proposed agreement at the beginning of March 2011. Two months later, Interfax news agency reported that all work on the drop zone agreement had been stopped as "launches of payloads along this flight path had not being currently planned."
Support for manned launches
In case of emergency during manned launches, the search and rescue task force within Central Military District, TsVO, activated special operational groups. As of 2012, such teams included under 200 military personnel equipped with 10 Mi-8 helicopters and four An-12 and An-26 planes. These assets would be deployed along the flight path of the manned vehicles in Baikonur, Arkalyk, Dzhezkazgan, Karaganda, Kyzyl and Gorno-Altaisk. The command post of the rescue team was located at the Uprun airfield in the Chelyabinsk District.
Known impact sites, also referred to as "drop zones," for orbital launches in Baikonur (as of 2007):
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Last update: January 31, 2013
Most of the time, endless grasslands downrange from Baikonur show no sings of human presence, but occasionally, pilots spot lonely nomads, whom they suppose to warn about the upcoming mission. In April, the spring turns a usually dull steppe into bright green pasture with patches of standing water mirroring cloudless skies. The air is fresh and brisk...
The rancher takes a break from tending his camels and squats by his yurt to talk to his guests. Russian officers advise him on the upcoming launch. Click to enlarge
The farmer offers Russians a glimpse of life in the Kazakh steppe.
After half an hour on the ground, officers return to the helicopter to continue their mission.