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Previous chapter: Baikonur facilities for Proton rockets


Above: The Proton launch facility in Baikonur as seen by a US reconnaissance satellite in April 1966.

Origin of the launch facility for the Proton rocket

In 1962, the Soviet government approved the construction in Tyuratam of the launch complex for the UR-500 rocket, later named Proton. All infrastructure of the new facility was built in the western section of the NIPP-5 test range in Kazakhstan, now known as Baikonur Cosmodrome. Baikonur has always remained the only location from where Protons could be launched.

In April 1962, a government decree No. 409-183 and No. 389-140 delegated the development of the Proton facility to GSKB Spetsmash (later known as KBOM) led by Vladimir Barmin. Since the UR-500 was conceived as a giant ballistic missile, Barmin's team planned to design both a surface pad and a huge underground silo for its launches! Obviously, every effort had to be made to keep the launch hardware as compact as possible. The development work on Proton's pad was conducted in parallel with the design of similar infrastructure for Vladimir Chelomei's much smaller UR-100 missile.

Ultimately, the UR-500 rocket had survived only as a space vehicle and plans for an underground launch pad were dropped. However, as a birthmark of its military origin, most support structures of the Proton launch complex would be half-buried underground.

The 600-ton Proton rocket fueled with very aggressive and toxic propellants required more than 100 various components and systems to support its launch and posed numerous engineering challenges. Initially, engineers considered a design of the launch complex similar to an iconic "tulip-like" pad of the R-7 rocket, however further analysis showed that it would not work very well for this much larger vehicle.

The Proton rocket was designed to stand on the launch pad resting on special fairing located just above the nozzles of its six main engines. Due to the proximity of engine nozzles to the fairing, supports of the launch pad holding the vehicle would have to retract to avoid contact with nozzles during the launch.

Engineers also had to find a way of transporting the rocket with then still unprecedented diameter of 4.1 meters. Initially, an An-12 transport aircraft and the giant Mi-12 helicopter were considered to be the only way of delivering Proton's oversized components from the factory to the launch site. A special buggy was drafted to roll stages from the airport to the processing complex at Site 92. However the delivery by air would be very expensive and after many additional efforts, railroad engineers were able to fit Proton's stages into a uniquely designed rail platform.

The transportation of a fully assembled Proton from the assembly building to the launch pad presented the next technical challenge. Yet again, scaling up the transporter/erector from the launch facility of the R-7 rocket would require a bulky and costly structure moving on rail with non-standard gauge. As a result, it was decided to divide the functions of the transporter and the erector between two systems. The transporter would fit on a standard-gauge rail with a width of 1,525 millimeters pushed by a regular diesel engine. In turn, a special erector would receive the rocket at the pad, lift it into vertical position and gently lower it onto its launch pad supports.

Barmin's engineers also proposed to place all fueling interfaces for the rocket in six retractable supports of the launch pad surrounding the basis of the rocket. In the meantime, all electrical interfaces would connect in the center of the rocket's bottom bulkhead through a special column of the launch pad. With this design, all electrical interfaces could be unplugged from the rocket by mere movement of the vehicle.

Such unusual architecture of the pad required extensive redesign of the Proton itself, however Vladimir Chelomei, the rocket's chief architect, did agree to accommodate necessary changes.

A team of contractors involved in the development of the launch complex was approved in December 1962. The actual construction was conducted by a military unit V/Ch 30221 GUSS MO and by its military contractors.

By the beginning of 1964, GSKB Spetsmash had already started installing launch pad hardware in the concrete structures of the launch facilities. In the second half of 1964, a full-scale mockup of the Proton rocket was assembled at the processing complex for the first time. The prototype vehicle was then rolled to the launch pad at Site 81 for fit tests. By the middle of 1965, one of the launch pads was completed and fueling tests were conducted with simulated propellants.

On July 16, 1965, the first Proton rocket blasted off from Baikonur. (112)

Launch personnel

The 4th Test Directorate at the NIIP-5 test range was responsible for all the operations with the Proton rocket at the launch site. (100) Workers and engineers responsible for assembling and checking Proton rockets and some of its payloads usually live in the residential area known as Site 95 (Ploshadka 95 in Russian) adjacent to all technical facilities on the west side of Baikonur. Conscripted personnel, which supported the operations during most of the Soviet period, was housed in nearby military barracks.

Most pre-launch processing facilities for the rocket were built at Site 92. The same site was also home of the extensive processing infrastructure for the Almaz space station program, completed around 1971. (78)


Next chapter: Launch operations at the Proton complex


Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: November 7, 2013

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Initial plans included transporting stages of the Proton rocket from the assembly factory in Moscow to Baikonur onboard of Antonov-12 transport planes and giant V-12 helicopters. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


Eventually, engineers were able to fit Proton's oversized core stage into a specially designed rail trailer. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


Vladimir Barmin, head of GSKB Spetsmash at the Proton launch complex in 1965. Credit: KBOM


One of the first Proton rockets on the launch pad in Tyuratam in 1965. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


Stills from the film footage, documenting the launch of the two-stage version of the UR-500 rocket in 1965. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


A Proton rocket with the L1 spacecraft for circumlunar missions is poised for launch in Baikonur circa 1967.