In just nine short years, Kazakhstan’s space industry has boomed from a small micro-industry employing just 23 people to a successful programme employing thousands.
The man credited for this extraordinary success story is the head of the National Space Agency, former cosmonaut Talgat Musabaev. As part of Kazakhstan’s ambition to become one of the top 30 most advanced countries in the world, its participation in the space industry has been prioritised from the point of view of competing internationally, but also in terms of domestic economic benefit. In 2006, it became the first former Soviet nation (apart from Russia) to launch its own space satellite (KazSat). The KazSat projects have been instrumental in improving the local and regional communications infrastructure, with KazSat2 covering neighbouring countries and KazSat3 being used by two major telcos, Astel and 2Day Telecom, to improve mobile phone networks. The development of accurate satellite mapping helps with weather prediction, the monitoring of agricultural conditions, water supply, and forecasting emergencies such as storms, floods, and drought. Crucially, however, the NAP-EVAK navigation system will also assist the emergency services in being able to respond better to incidents and even national disasters, leading engineer Sergey Trepashko told the Kazinform News Agency in January 2016.
Baikonur Cosmodrome – an impressive legacy
The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan has a world class legacy. The world’s first spacecraft to orbit the earth, Sputnik 1, was launched from Baikonur, as was Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1, followed two years later by the craft carrying Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Russian expertise and collaboration still remains a lynchpin of the Kazakh programme, with most of the key projects being undertaken jointly.
Kazakhstan’s main space projects
The Baiterek rocket launch complex at Baikonur, another Kazakh-Russian project, commenced in 2004. Its mission was to create a base for more environmentally-friendly rocket launches, since improving the eco-friendliness of space missions is a priority in the international space community. The Baiterek complex was originally intended to support the new Angara launch vehicles, the first fully post-Soviet era rocket. There was some deliberation between 2012-15 as to whether this would continue or whether the Baiterek complex would refocus its efforts instead on the Zenit vehicles, but plans for the Angara were eventually re-established and the first Angara launch from Baiterek is now planned for 2017.
Other projects apart from the crucial high-accuracy KazSat infrastructure include the design and assembly of space vehicles at Baikonur, the Earth Remote Sensing System (ERSS), and the TC-66 project, which is working on a national set of standards and procedures for the development of the space industry’s activities in Kazakhstan.
International participation and collaboration
Baikonur is now the only launchpad for manned International Space Station (ISS) missions. It is also fully equipped for launching unmanned spacecraft. This is an important source of income both for Baikonur and for Kazakhstan itself.
The steppes of Kazakhstan most recently played host to the landing of an International Space Station crew. The celebrated British astronaut Tim Peake and his colleagues, Tim Kopra of NASA and Yuri Malenchenko of Russian space agency Roscosmos, landed safely just southeast of Zhezkazgan in a somewhat charred Soyuz TMA-19M capsule. Local and international experts were on hand to assist with the landing and examine the crew on return. Kazakhstan’s burgeoning infrastructure and expertise base is earning the country a reputation among the international space community for being able to host such events successfully and being a useful partner.
Baikonur and “Space Tourism”
With EXPO 2017 soon to come to Astana, the planned Space Harbour at Baikonur will hopefully host tourists, who will be encouraged to visit the complex to stargaze, tour parts of the facility, and watch rocket launches from the central dome. In the future, the 1.2 hectare-strong site will host a planetarium, a Space Museum, an onsite hotel, restaurants, and entertainment facilities, including a water park, cinema, and flight control display centre. This could again be a crucial source of revenue for the area surrounding Baikonur and be a boost to the Kazakh economy, especially as Kazakhstan is also poised to gain World Heritage Site status for a number of ancient Silk Road sites to attract more visitors. Actual space flight tourism could also be in Kazakhstan’s not too distant future, possibly even by 2020.
Training the next generation
New standards for the training of professionals in the field of space engineering and technology have been established by the National Space Agency JSC and the Ministry of Education and Science. Four universities in Kazakhstan are now providing these recognised programmes and there are currently around 250 students enrolled in these courses. Bolashak, the Presidential scholarship programme, has funded around 30 students to study abroad in this same field in order to develop their skills in both their scientific endeavours and English language competency, mostly in the UK, France, Russia, and Ukraine. Some 200 students also study on site at Baikonur, at the Moscow Aviation Institute. Home-grown specialists are an extremely important part of the Kazakh space programme as the country aims to strike out on its own in the field. The ground infrastructure in Kazakhstan is already well-established, but the country needs a new generation of young, enthusiastic experts to take the country’s ambitions forward, to innovate and carve new pathways in the exciting field of space exploration.