A senior official in Kazakhstan has confirmed that the government is considering options for Russia to end its military presence at Baikonur cosmodrome, which is currently leased to Russia.
Speaking on May 30, Defense and Aerospace Industry Minister Beibut Atamkulov said, however, that a definitive decision on the issue has yet to be made.
“We have not yet held bilateral negotiations … but we are doing work in this direction,” Atamkulov was cited as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
Moscow-based daily newspaper Izvestia reported earlier in the day that the Russian space program might switch over to fully civilian-run operations by the end of this year.
“The officers working there will be substituted by civilian engineers, which should lead to considerable budget savings,” the newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources in Russia’s space industry.
The significance of this change of status is that the current near-military nature of Russian space operations cloaks the industry in deep secrecy. Atamkulov said that the civilian status of the cosmodrome would make it possible to attract more private-sector interest in the space mission launch facility. The minister predicted that the involvement of private companies could lead to “thousands” of satellites being launched from Baikonur.
Last week, the governor of the Kyzylorda region, where Baikonur is located, suggested Kazakhstan is ready to cooperate further with Russia on developing the facility as a tourism destination.
"We have studied the experience of space tourism at Cape Canaveral in the United States, which draws about 3 million visitors annually. The idea of creating an entertainment tourist zone in Baikonur has already been studied together with [Russian space agency] Roscosmos and has been approved by an intergovernmental commission,” Kyzylorda governor Krymbek Kusherbayev was quoted as saying by Tengri news website.
Baikonur was built in the mid-20th century and served as the starting point for the first launches of satellites and manned missions to space. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia retained control over the facility and adjoining town by virtue of a lease, which costs it $100 million per year. In 2004, that lease was extended to 2050.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.