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The Zenit rocket entered service in the 1980s along with the most sophisticated launch complex in Baikonur. The processing and launch facility for the Zenit features an environmetally clean and automated pre-launch processing of the vehicle, which was designed to launch the rocket only hour and a half after it had beed rolled out to the pad. (90)


Above: Launch pad for the Zenit rocket in Baikonur.

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Zenit launch facility in Baikonur

Traditionally for the Russian rocketry, the Zenit is assembled and transported to the launch pad in horizontal position on a rail transporter.

On the launch pad a stationary erector installs the rocket in vertical position. Although the Zenit requires no personnel access when it is in vertical position on the launch pad, both launch pads in Baikonur were designed to be equipped with movable service towers known as "skvorechnik" (bird house). Their purpose was to allow cosmonaut crews to climb aboard a Zenit-launched manned spacecraft, which was expected to replace existing versions of the Soyuz vehicle. At least one of the movable towers, had been largely completed. However a full mass of movable towers for Zenit reportedly exceeded that of movable service towers at the Proton launch complex. Combined with smaller number of wheel buggies which were designed to roll the giant structure back and forth, the pressure onto the track ended up beyond the carrying capacity of standard rails. As a result, larger-than-standard tracks were required and make matters worse, custom-build crossings would be required between standard track used to deliver the rocket and the track used by the tower. The problem apparently remained unresolved at the time of the Soviet collapse.

The access towers would be retracted by rail shortly before manned launch. The towers would also provide emergency escape tunnels for the crews in case of on-pad emergencies.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and financial crisis in the Russian space program stalled these plans.

At liftoff, as the rocket's main engines reach nominal thrust, its flight control system sends a command to piro-devices to release the attachments of the vehicle to the launch pad. In the next 1.5 seconds, attachments retract allowing the vehicle to move upwards. After the rocket moves up 90 millimeters, fixating devices disconnect from the rocket.

History of the facility

The construction of the Zenit launch complex started at the end of the 1970s on the right flank of Baikonur, where many previous rockets developed by Yuzhnoe Design Bureau were tested in the past. The complex included existing infrastructure, which was refurbished for the new task, as well as newly built facilities.

On June 14, 1978, two and a half years after Zenit development officially started, the original team assigned to test Zenit was formed within the 2nd Directorate of NIIP-5 test range. (The 2nd Directorate traditionally tested Yuzhnoe-produced rockets.) On September 7, 1979, a separate department dedicated to work with Zenit was formed within the 2nd Directorate. (67)

In 1982, the 5th Scientific and Testing Directorate was created in Baikonur specifically for the operations with the Zenit boosters.

Site 42

The Zenit rocket inherited from the past an assembly and processing complex at Site 42, which was previously served R-16 and later R-36-type ballistic missiles.

Site 43

A residential complex for the launch teams serving the Zenit launch facility located in Area 43 and 44. The main town includes apartment blocks, hotel, eatery and communications facility. The first military barracks at the site have been built at the end of the 1950s for the military units testing the R-16 ballistic missile.

Site 45

In 1979, the military construction crews started the construction of the launch complex for the Zenit, which continued until mid-1980s. It included two launch pads, known as "left" and "right," a storage for cryogenic propellant and 50 other elements providing automated preparation of the vehicle. All operations of the erecting of the vehicle on the pad, connecting fueling interfaces, as well as deactivation of the vehicle after aborted launch could be conducted autmoatically.

The "left" launch pad was completed in 1984 and it hosted the first Zenit launch on April 13, 1985.

The "right" launch pad was completed by 1990, the first launch from the pad took place on May 22 of that year.

1990 explosion

On October 4, 1990, during its 14th launch, the Zenit's first stage failed five seconds after the liftoff from the "right" launch complex at Site 45.

According to eyewitnesses, the launch vehicle lifted to the altitude of about 70 meters, froze in the air for a fraction of a second and then started slowly falling back to the pad. A flame burst to the side from the tail section of the rocket as it collapsed back into the falme trench, directly below the launch pad. The enourmous explosion and fire had followed.

The shockwave from the explosion lifted a 1,000-ton metal body of the launch structure as high as 20 meters from the surface and then crashed it down to the ground. The debris from the rocket weighing two-three tons were scattered around the complex from two to three kilometers from the epicenter. The payload, apparently Tselina singal intelligence satellite, crashed 300 meters from the launch pad. The fire raged on the pad for several hours as night fell over Baikonur.

The estimated damage from the accident reached 45 million rubles. The investigation pointed at the oxidizer line in the launcher's first stage engine as a source of the failure. (90)

As of 2000, the "right" pad remained out of service, with all Zenit launches from Baikonur conducted from the "left" pad. Two more launches after the accident on October 4, 1990 also resulted in launch failures, however, none of them damaged the pad.

Finally, on November 17, 1992, which reportedly could be the last for the Zenit if it is not succeeded, the vehicle performed flawlessly.

Post-Soviet period

In 1998, the Zenit processing was transferred from the military to the civilian authorities, including launches of the classified Tselina signal intelligence satellites.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the success of the Sea Launch venture, which involved the Zenit-3SL rocket delivering commercial satellites from the ocean-based platform, enabled investments into the Zenit rocket launch infrastructure in Baikonur. The project known as Land Launch or Desert Launch envisioned bringing a three-stage Zenit-3SL rocket to Baikonur in addition to a two-stage Zenit-2.

On December 20, 2006, a new version of the Zenit rocket, known as Zenit-2M, was rolled out to the launch pad at Site 45 for integration tests.


On Dec. 5, 2012, the head of the Kazakh space agency, Kazkosmos, Talgat Musabaev told the Interfax new agency that his country had dropped plans to bring the Angara rocket to Baikonur under the Baiterek project due to its escalating cost and the refusal of Russia to participate in its funding. Russian plans to build a launch pad for the Angara rocket in Vostochny Cosmodrome on its own territory further undermined the economic feasibility of the Baiterek venture.

According to Musabaev, Kazakh officials were conducting serious negotiations to form a new joint venture with Russia around a launch vehicle other than Angara, such as Zenit.

In December 2013, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted the deputy head of the Kazakh space agency, Kazkosmos, Meirbek Moldabekov as saying that by the end of 2014, Kazakhstan had planned to take over operations of the Zenit rocket in Baikonur from Russia. These plans had never materialized due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014, which interrupted the production of Zenit rockets.

According to a Russian-Kazakh agreement struck in 2017, the control over the Zenit launch facility would be transferred to Kazakhstan by Jan. 1, 2018. By that time, the two sides planned to refurbish the launch complex for a new rocket conceived within the Sunkar concept.


Next chapter: Town of Baikonur



Zenit rocket infrastructure overview:

Completion date
Processing area
Originally built for the R-16 ICBM testing
Residential area
Originally built for the R-16 ICBM testing
45 (left)
Launch pad
Currently active
45 (right)
Launch pad
Destroyed in the 1990 explosion


Article and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: July 29, 2017

All rights reserved


A Zenit-2 booster blasts off from Baikonur's Site 45 carrying a Yenisei-2 classified imaging satellite.

Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The active "left" launch pad for the Zenit vehicle (top) and a similar "right" pad (bottom) demolished by the 1990 explosion. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Ground Zero: Flame trench of the right launch pad turned into a crater by the 1990 Zenit explosion. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Blown away: The 1990 explosion was reportedly so powerful that its shockwave stripped the covering off the access tower and blew away tops of light towers located hundred meters from the pad. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The access tower of the "left" launch pad at Site 45 and the power-supply cable shelter (botom right). Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Click to enlarge

The umbilical boom, which enables various interfaces between the rocket and the ground equipment. Note 31 stars painted on the device, each symbolizing a Zenit mission which blasted off from the site at the time. Two other launches were conducted from the "right" pad. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The general view of the two Zenit launch pads in Area 45 when looking south from an access road. Date: July 11, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A view of the western facade of the Zenit assembly building in Area 42. The rocket is normally rolled out to the launch pad nose first through the main doors (mostly blocked by trees on the photo) located on this side of the building. The mural of Vladimir Lenin is still embellishing left wing of the building almost a decade after fall of the USSR. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The interior of the Zenit assembly building looking west. The test version of the Zenit rocket is on the right, the main rail tracks used to deliver stages and to roll out the vehicle to the launch pad is in the center. The assembly buggies are on the left. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The interior of the Zenit assembly building looking east. The main doors used to roll out the vehicle to the launch pad can be seen on the right, as well as "clean room" chamber used to process Zenit's payloads. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The monument dedicated to the founder of the Yuzhnoe design bureau, Michael Yangel. It is located in a small park east of Zenit assembly building in Area 42. Several generations of rockets developed in Yuzhnoe bureau have been tested in this facility. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak