Space in Russia (1)

Space in Russia (1)




“Oh boy, this is it!” With trembling hands I took hold of the massive steel structure and stroked it, as if it were a woman. A dream came true. I stood at the same spot where the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, also trembling, was preparing himself for man’s first step in space.

Here history was written April 12 1961; the place Baikonur, desert like country, isolated from the living world, then part of the Soviet Union, now a Russian enclave in the republic of Kazakstan. The same launch pad is still there, and it is even used regularly for launching Soyuz spacecraft into orbit. It looks obsolete but that is beside the truth for announced launches depart like trains on the continent. The postal authorities of the former Soviet Union issued a lot of space stamps, depicting Gagarin and his space ship Vostock (it means East), but numerous are also the postal stationary issued for space events in this country. One is pictured with an illustration of Gagarin’s launch at Baikonur. The stationary was issued July 6 1972 commemorating the 15th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, mans first hand-made product in space. The envelope was posted to Poland and has the red postal cancel of the International Post Office in Moscow.

Also pictured is an illustrated post card for the 20th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. This card has an imprinted stamp with the Vostok space ship, and was issued January 6,1981 with an impression of 500,000, according to Pfau catalogue, Sowjetunion 4. A special 6k. stamp also depicting Gagarin, was added for the registered mail. Because the destination was inside the country the Cyrillic “3” for Zakaknoe (registered) was used instead of the international “R” (Recommande or Registered) for foreign countries. A lot of postal history is on this stationary. We see a pictorial cancel of 12.04.1981 (Cosmonaut’s Day) and a normal day cancel of Moscow post office. But that is not all; at your left you’ll see the arrival day cancel of Erevan P.O. So, a beautiful piece with six (!) philatelic items on it.

Back to Baikonur. The Cosmodrome area is the size of Belgium, located some 2000 kilometres from Moscow, with extreme living conditions: temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius in summer and minus 40 degrees C in winter. The climate is very dry, with sand or snow storms and little natural vegetation. Nevertheless this was in the ’50s the ideal place to build the world’s largest rocket place, far from spying eyes and easy to protect. The town of Leninsk with 50,000 inhabitants, mostly engineers and technicians and their families, was an isolated, forbidden city for strangers. At the end of 1993, after the Berlin wall tumbled down, visitors were welcome at Baikonur. It is like riding into the desert on the way to the Cosmodrome. A small building with the Russian words “Road to the Stars” marks the gateway to the launch pads. A network of busy railways and bad roads link nine rocket complexes with 14 launch pads, 35 technical facilities and three propellant fuelling stations.

These complexes conduct preparation and launch operations for Energia, Proton, Zenit, Soyuz and other boosters. They allow about 40 launches a year to be performed. The history of Baikonur is remembered in a nice museum, close to the picturesque houses of Gagarin and Serge Korolev, the Chief Engineer of Russian spacecraft, in which they lived while at Baikonur. People working at the Cosmodrome have long train journeys each working day. It takes one hour, thirty minutes to go from Leninsk where everybody lives to the Proton complex and the same time to re-turn. Most impressive is the Energia-Buran complex with its white buildings and integration hall. The Buran was used only once in the 80’s. Now the huge steel construction stands in the sand storms with all its destructive and corrosive effects. Millions of Rubble’s are wasted here! Baikonur and Energia/Buran we see again on a pictorial postal stationary issued April 9 1990. The envelope, posted by registered mail, bears two pictorial Baikonur cancellations: one for 35 years cosmodrome Baikonur (upper right), the other on which we see the booster transported by train to its launch pad (under). This piece also is a prize gain for an Astrophilatelic collection!.

By Bert van Eijck