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2 Jun, 2010 05:45

ISS crew returns to Earth as Baikonur Cosmodrome turns 55

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft with Russian, Japanese cosmonauts and a US astronaut on board has successfully landed in Kazakhstan, after a total of 161 days at the International Space Station.

14 Mi-8 rescue planes, four An-12 and An-24 planes, and seven special rescue vehicles provided the safe landing of the capsule.

The state of the crew is estimated as good with their pulse rate normal, said the head of the Institute of medical and biological problem Igor Ushakov.

“The traditional test of eating apples has been completed successfully,” he jokingly told journalist. Ushakov said that on board the station there was a good doctor, Oleg Kotov, who was also the crew’s captain.

After the return of the crew, consisting of spacemen Soichi Noguchi, Oleg Kotov and Timothy Creamer, there are still three people remaining on the ISS. On June 18, a new space crew will join them on board the station.

The world's first cosmodrome turns 55

From the launch of the Sputnik and the first man in space to the first space tourist – the Baikonur cosmodrome has seen it all.

Built secretly in the Kazakh desert with almost no infrastructure in extreme weather conditions, it became and still is the world’s first and largest cosmodrome.

Boris Yesin has been working in the space industry for decades and is the only man in charge of the mail the cosmonauts receive.

He says the massive cosmodrome was only one part of the USSR’s gigantic project.

“It wasn’t only about sending rockets to space. Temperatures there vary from +40 C° to – 40 C°. And thousands of people needed a place to live,” remembers Yesin. “So a whole city was also built in the middle of nowhere with parks, fountains, apartment blocks and schools.”

The town and the cosmodrome make up the total area of nearly 7,000 square kilometers – that’s comparable to the size of Puerto Rico.

Construction began in February 1955 and in just two years the cosmodrome already hosted the launch of the world’s first man-made satellite – Sputnik.

And in 1961 Yury Gagarin became the first person to go into space, also blasting off from Baikonur.

Since then, the cosmodrome has hosted more than half of all space launches in history, including of the USSR's only Space Shuttle – Buran.

Boris Yesin says that, “It was one of the most prestige places to work in the country- not only because of space exploration. During Soviet years there were often food shortages. Well, Baikonur was always well stocked.”

However, it wasn't always like that. After the collapse of the USSR, the cosmodrome fell under the control of Kazakhstan.

The amount of launches fell, the financing was cut and many specialists left, looking for a better life.

In 1994 Russia began renting the Baikonur compound, including the town and the cosmodrome in a lease running until 2050, and slowly returning the area to its former glory.

Today, 55 years since its establishment, the cosmodrome once again plays a major role in space exploration, responsible for around one-third of all space launches in the world every year.