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Site 113: Forgotten lunar town of Baikonur

The plans to assemble the N1 Moon rocket right at the launch site meant that thousands of workers and engineers would have to be deployed in the inhospitable steppes of Kazakhstan. So, in addition to the monumental assembly and launch infrastructure of the Moon Race, an entire city was founded at the heart of the Tyuratam test range, for the sole purpose of lunar conquest.

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Actively developed from around 1965, Site 113 was initially intended to be an administrative and residential area, housing military personnel of the 6th Test Directorate which oversaw the preparations and testing of the N1/L3 lunar expeditionary complex. Along with the launch pads at Site 110 and the assembly complex at Site 112, the infrastructure at Site 113 was part of Facility (Obyekt) No. 358, developed for the Soviet lunar program.

In November 1966, the 47th detached engineering and test unit based at Site 113 was formed to take responsibility for the operations of the 11P-852 launch complex and range testing of the N1/L3 system. The first commander of the unit was Lt. Colonel Vasily Shirshov.

Site 113, along with a nearby Sites 115, 116 and 118, quickly grew during the second half of the 1960s with various support facilities, such as warehouses, open-air storage sites for construction teams and canteens for the military officers and civilian specialists operating launch pads at Site 110 and even a stadium. There was also a pig farm and a shooting range. Two large boiler plants to supply heating for all the surrounding infrastructure were built at nearby Sites 114 and 114B, while water treatment facilities were set up at Sites 115 and 115A. A special technical battalion, designated Military Unit No. 77178, was formed in January 1967 to operate the sprawling heating and water-supply infrastructure. Its soldiers were housed at Site 113.

Life at the nascent desert town was harsh, especially initially. The veterans remember tasting sand in their food and the nearly empty bones in what was sold to them as "steaks" at the military-run dining halls. It took some complaints and re-organizations to eventually get basic services running at such a remote settlement. However, with the chronic housing shortage at the Tyuratam test range, as elsewhere in the USSR, even that extreme location required a fast expansion, often at the expense of quality of construction.

By the time the N1 rocket entered autonomous tests, the headquarters of the 6th Directorate moved into the three-story structure of the former military barracks at Site 113, where it remained for the rest of its existence. Because Site 113 and the surrounding facilities were within the potential blast zone of the N1 launch pads, located just 4.5 kilometers away, official rules required the evacuation of the entire area at the time of liftoffs. This caused an exodus-like effort, but quickly proved to be a very prudent life-saving measure. On the night of July 3, 1969, many buildings at Site 113 lost their windows and doors to the colossal blast wave from the catastrophic explosion of the second N1 rocket.

After the premature shutdown of the Soviet lunar program in 1974, the remaining military units and their residential infrastructure were re-purposed to the support of the Energia-Buran program, which brought even larger swell in population at Site 113 than had been there during the hey days of the Moon Race. Housing construction at the site apparently continued until the day the USSR collapsed in 1991. But, with it the end of the Energia-Buran program, the 6th Directorate and the support battalion were officially disbanded in 1995, after three decades in operation. (233)

During the 1990s, without a major program like the Energia-Buran, which would require a great deal of visitors or permanent personnel in the area, the Soviet-style apartment blocks at Site 113 were abandoned and left to decay.

By the turn of the 21st century, robbers, scrap metal scavengers and sandy winds did their job turning a once bustling city built specifically for the exploration of the Moon into a ghost town and a sad monument to the once grand ambitions of the Soviet Union in space.

 

Overview of support infrastructure for the N1/L3 expeditionary complex:

Site No.
Description
113
Residential area for N-1/L-3 and Energia military and civilian personnel
114/114B
Boiler facilities
115
Support area, storage
116
Pig farm and a shooting range
117
?
118
N-1/Energia residential, storage and construction warehousing area
119/119A
A temporary residential area and storage for construction teams founded around 1964

 

Next page: Site 250 in Tyuratam

 

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The article and photos by Anatoly Zak; Last update: June 7, 2020

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: June 6, 2020

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The first signs of work in the area appeared in 1963 with the deployment of a temporary construction base at Site 118. Click to enlarge. Credit: USGS


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Active construction at Site 113 and Site 112 was seen on satellite photos in 1965. Click to enlarge. Credit: USGS


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A residential area at Site 113 complete with a stadium as seen by a satellite in 1971. Click to enlarge. Credit: USGS


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The first signs of work in the area appeared in 1963 with the deployment of a temporary construction base at Site 118. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


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The power and boiler facility at Site 114B was taken over by RKK Energia from the military in mid-1990s. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


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Storage area at the central section of Tyuratam. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak