Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University Press (2016)
Just off the main drag in Karaganda, a coal mining and industrial city in northern Kazakhstan, the EcoMuseum is housed on the first floor of a local government administration building. You have to know where you’re going because there’s no sign on the street, and only a small one on the door.
The museum features an eclectic mix of artifacts and interpretive exhibits from central and northeastern Kazakhstan, a region exceptionally rich with environmental problems. There are exhibits on mining, manufacturing, pollution, water resources, and energy conservation. The museum is also in the eco-tourism business, offering guided tours of Central Kazakhstan’s mountain and desert regions and Lake Balkhash, the largest lake in Central Asia. Its signature “Back in the USSR” tour takes visitors back in time to the region’s prison labor camps, the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site, where the Soviets conducted above and below-ground nuclear tests for 40 years, and the village of Aksu, whose claim to fame is its alley of Soviet monuments with busts and statues of Lenin.
The museum’s flashiest exhibit—and the one most popular with school groups—is the space center, with its mock-up of the Mir space station control room. It’s like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise or a scene from Dr. Strangelove with banks of monitors, flashing lights, control levers and dials and a throbbing, techno sound track.
On both sides of the space station, the museum floor looks like a junk yard with misshapen chunks of metal, some partly burned, with barely distinguishable Cyrillic markings. Most of the items were salvaged from the Soviet military base at Lake Balkash in the south of Karaganda oblast. When the Soviet Army left its bases in Kazakhstan, it abandoned tons of military hardware—trucks, artillery, mortars, ammunition, communications equipment, as well as huts and furniture. Economic times were hard, and local people moved in to salvage and sell what they could. Most of the metal went for scrap, but some ended up at the EcoMuseum.
Credit for the collection goes to EcoMuseum director Dmitry Kalmykov, a trained scientist. As a child growing up in Ukraine, he loved to collect scrap metal and bring it home. “When I moved to Karaganda and discovered there was all this stuff from the military and the nuclear test site, it reawakened my childhood interest,” he said. Dmitry started picking up metal debris during a 1992 scientific investigation at the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site and hasn’t stopped since.
The gems of the collection are parts of rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, 550 miles away in the semi-desert of southwestern Kazakhstan. For the Soviet Union, the remote location—far away from population centers and, presumably, the long lenses of U.S. spy planes—was ideal for its military space program. From the first human space mission in 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s brief jaunt stunned the U.S. into kick-starting its own manned space program, Baikonur has been the launch site for all Soviet and Russian crewed space missions and for rockets carrying satellites.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s space program faced a difficult problem—its launch site was now in a foreign country. Although Russia claimed that it should still control the cosmodrome, the military installations and forces guarding them, Kazakhstan insisted that Russia not only agree to joint control but start paying rent on the place. In 1994, Kazakhstan agreed to lease the complex to Russia for about $120 million a year.
Baikonur is a commercial success—the preferred launch site for most countries and private companies that want to get stuff (mostly communication satellites) into space. More than 35,000 people work there. It’s the no-frills discount store of space launch sites, easily beating the European and Asian competition for price. Most launches use the cheap and well tested Proton rocket, the workhorse of the Soviet space program since its first launch in 1965 and one of the most successful heavy boosters in the history of spaceflight.
The people of central and northeastern Kazakhstan don’t see much from Kazakhstan’s $120 million-a-year rocket revenue. But they sometimes see the rockets—or parts of them—out on the steppe. Rockets are launched in a northeasterly direction from Baikonur, with the first stage burning off over an area that can range from 10 to 90 km wide, depending on the size of the rocket and its payload. A large region of the steppe from Zhezkazgan in the south to Pavlodar in the north is within the ellipse of the rocket flight path.
What doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere falls to earth—usually on the uninhabited steppe but sometimes near populated areas. In 1999, a rocket carrying a communications satellite blew up soon after lift-off, scattering debris and fuel over a wide area. A large section of rocket fell into the backyard of a house in a village near Karkaralinsk. “This is dangerous material,” said Dmitry. “The nose of the first stage has an engine with rocket fuel. It’s like a bomb and the fuel is highly toxic.”
After the 1999 crash, Kazakhstan briefly banned launches, demanding that Russia conduct an investigation and offer compensation. The row delayed a scheduled supply flight carrying food, water and the navigational equipment to the beleaguered Mir space station.
Dmitry worries about the authorities’ lack of preparedness and emergency plans. He pulls out a map of the rocket ellipse. “The akimat [local government] doesn’t have such a map. If you ask the authorities where the danger area is, they don’t know. Maybe it’s here, maybe it’s there. We need to inform the people of the dangers. If you’re informed, you’re aware. Information is protection.”
Dmitry says the annual rent paid by Russia is supposed to cover the cost of safety measures—equipment and training for emergency personnel, medical staff and disposal teams, as well as safety precautions for the general population. In 2001, a parliamentary committee held hearings on safety at Baikonur, and issued a report with about 30 recommendations. These included low-cost technical fixes, such as installing radio beacons on rockets so that they can be more easily located in the vast steppe. If radio beacons were used, says Dmitry, it would not have taken three days in 2006 to locate a rocket that spun out of control and crashed soon after lift-off, causing widespread ecological damage.
Despite the dangers, rural residents have resourcefully recycled the space junk that has dropped from the sky. Rocket bodies have been turned into garages, animal sheds and outhouses, metal panels used for fencing for livestock, and smaller sections sold for scrap. Dmitry shows me albums of photos taken on tours of the steppe. Half a section of an aluminum rocket body makes a pretty good Quonset hut. There’s an old Moskvich, parked in a garage built from mud bricks, with a rocket body for the roof. Livestock standing on top of a rocket buried in the sand. A herder dozing, his back resting against the nose of a rocket. A summer kitchen, with shelves stacked with canned goods and a cook stove.
I asked Dmitry which government agency was responsible for safety. “That’s a prohibited question because nobody knows. The space agency says the space industry is responsible. The industry says the local akimat is responsible. The akimat says it’s the Ministry for Emergency Situations. The ministry says it’s responsible after an explosion or accident, but not before. In Kazakhstan, no one takes responsibility.”
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube, http://bit.ly/davidhmould