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Stage 1

Stage I for Soyuz-5 rocket




Stage II for Soyuz-5 rocket

Zenit launch facility in Baikonur

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 featured an environmentally clean and automated pre-launch processing of the vehicle, which was designed to launch the rocket only hour and a half after it had been rolled out to the pad. (90)


Launch pad for the Zenit rocket in Baikonur.

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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 had been 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.

Design pecularities

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

On the launch pad, designated 11U223, a stationary erector installed the rocket in vertical position.

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

Although the Zenit required no personnel access when it is in vertical 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 spacecraft, which was expected to replace existing versions of the Soyuz vehicle.

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.

At least one of the movable towers had been largely completed. However a full mass of those structures for Zenit reportedly exceeded that of mobile 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 to be beyond the carrying capacity of standard rails. As a result, larger-than-standard tracks were required and, to make matters worse, custom-build crossings would be required between the standard track used to deliver the rocket and the track used by the tower. That problem apparently remained unresolved until the desintegration of the Soviet Union, when all plans for flying piloted missions on Zenit had been shelved because the production of the vehicle was left in the newly independent republic of Ukraine.

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 automatically.

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.

The October 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 an 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 flame trench, directly below the launch pad. The enormous explosion and fire 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 from two to three tons were scattered around the complex as far as two to three kilometers from the epicenter. The payload, apparently a Tselina signal-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)

Two subsequent Zenit launches after the accident on October 4, 1990, also resulted in failures, however, none of them damaged the pad. Finally, on November 17, 1992, which reportedly could be the last for the Zenit rocket if it had not succeeded, the vehicle performed flawlessly.

In nearly three decades after the accident, the badly damaged "right" pad remained out of service and all subsequent Zenit missions were originating from the "left" pad.

Post-Soviet period

In 1998, ground operations with Zenit rockets were transferred from the military to civilian authorities, including the responsibillity for the launches of classified Tselina-2 electronic-intelligence satellites.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the success of the Sea Launch venture, which relied on the Zenit-3SL version of the Zenit rocket, prompted investments into the rocket's 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, which continued flying from Baikonur.

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. The first launch of the Zenit-2M took place on June 29, 2007.

Russia and Kazakhstan try new iteration of the Baiterek project

On Dec. 5, 2012, the head of the Kazakh space agency, Kazkosmos, Talgat Musabaev told the Interfax new agency that his country had dropped long-delayed plans for bringing 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 the Zenit launcher.

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, later renamed Soyuz-5.

Work on Soyuz-5 pad remains at standstill in 2019


On Aug. 22, 2018, Director General of Roskosmos State Corporation Dmitry Rogozin and the Minister of Defense and Aerospace Industry of Kazakhstan Beibut Atamkulov signed a protocol on the changes and amendments to the 2004 agreement on the Baiterek complex. The document officially confirmed that the Baiterek project would now rely on the future Soyuz-5 rocket based at the launch infrastructure of the Zenit-M complex in Baikonur.

According to Roskosmos, during the signing of the protocol at the Armiya-2018 military industry show, the two sides reconfirmed their commitment to the Baiterek project and discussed deadlines in the implementation of its main phases.

However, behind the scene, things were not going well. As late as August 2019, the government of Kazakhstan was still delaying payments for the upgrades of the former Zenit launch pad for the Soyuz-5 rocket, an industry source said. In parallel, Russia apparently tried to convince investors from the United Arab Emirates, UAE, who had already promised to fund the upgrades of the Soyuz launch pad in Baikonur, to pay for the upgrades and maintenance of the Zenit-M complex as well. However, none of the actual work necessary to convert the infrastructure in Baikonur from the Zenit rocket to Soyuz-5 had been done during most of 2019.

The conversion of the Zenit-M complex for the Soyuz-5 rocket had been considered to be critical for launching the first unpiloted protototype (INSIDER CONTENT) of the PTK Federatsiya crew vehicle at the end of 2022, until the decision was made in 2019, to replace it with the Angara-5P rocket for launches of the new-generation spacecraft renamed Orel.

Baiterek renamed Nazarbaev Pad

The renaming fever also affected the Baiterek project itself. On September 7, 2019, Roskosmos announced that President Vladimir Putin had proposed to name the future launch facility for Soyuz-5 and Soyuz-6 rockets in Baikonur after the first president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev. According to Roskosmos, the complex would be called Nazarbaevsky Start ("Nazarbaev's Pad"). Possibly, the move was designed to entice Kazakhstan to pay for its share of the long-stalled project.

More Baiterek agreements signed

On July 30, 2020, Director General at RKK Energia Igor Ozar and Director General of the Baiterek joint venture Kuat Mustafinov signed an agreement in Baikonur for the deployment of the Soyuz-5 rocket at the former Zenit-M complex, Roskosmos announced. The latest version of the deal excluded launches of piloted missions from the Zenit-M facility, because the Soyuz-5 rocket was no longer expected to be certified for carrying crews.

On September 26, Roskosmos announced that its TsENKI infrastructure development center and Kazakh construction team would begin the conversion of the Zenit complex for the Soyuz-5 rocket on October 16, 2020.

Then, on Sept. 16, 2021, Rogozin announced another agreement, this time with TOO Basic Construction in Kazakhstan, for the conversion of the Zenit complex for Soyuz-5, which was then promised to fly at the end of 2023.

On Nov. 1, 2021, Roskosmos announced that Aleksandr Belovich, the president of the Bazis Group, assigned to refurbish the Zenit complex for the Soyuz-5 rocket on behalf of Kazakhstan, visited Baikonur and toured the Zenit facilities along with representatives of Roskosmos' TsENKI infrastructure division. At that time, Bazis Engineering, the design arm of Bazis Group, was developing the technical and financial assessment documentation for the project, Roskosmos said, adding that a team of specialists for surveying and measurement work was expected at the site in the near future.

War in Ukraine might affect Baiterek project


In mid-May 2022, less than three months after Russia escalated its war against Ukraine, resulting in a new wave of Western sanctions, TsENKI infrastructure division at Roskosmos hosted a meeting with Kazakh officials in Moscow on the Baiterek project. According to the official statement issued after the event, the two sides reconfirmed the feasibility of the project, but they also discussed "...additional measures for risk reduction stemming from the anti-Russian sanctions."

Earlier, specialists from the NII SK launch infrastructure development bureau in Moscow and KTs Yuzhny in Baikonur "amended the list and the amount of repair and reconstruction work required by the systems of the launch pad and the processing facilities employed in the Baiterek complex," the statement said, adding that the maintenance team had conducted hardware checks at the facility. However, there was no update at the time on any practical steps to refurbish the launch pad or the processing facility for the Soyuz-5 rocket.

Only in July 2022, Rogozin admitted that the first planned launch of Soyuz-5 from Baikonur would likely have to be postponed from 2023 to 2024 due to lack of progress with the construction of the launch pad. Around the same time, Kazakh officials said that the project would be pushed back from six months to a year. The delay was re-confirmed during the meeting in Baikonur on August 9 of the newly appointed head of Roskosmos Yuri Borisov with Kazakh Minister of Digital Development and Communications Bagdad Musin, who witnessed the launch of a Soyuz-2 rocket with the Khayam satellite for Iran.


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


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Article and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: August 10, 2022

All rights reserved


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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 (bottom 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