Judicial complications to the program, that would have guaranteed the functioning of the famous Baikonur cosmodrome even after the end of Roscosmos activities, are turning into a potential own goal by the Kazakh government.
A few weeks ago, a handful of news agencies around the world broke an alarmist story, saying that the government in Astana (the capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan) had seized the assets and infrastructure of TzENKI, of the Roscosmos group, in charge of logistics in the cosmodromes and even revoked the expatriation permit of the person in charge of the same.
Read in this way, the news envisaged apocalyptic scenarios on the continuation of the activity of the famous cosmodrome, the first gate to the stars from which the space age began on Oct. 4, 1957.
We need to take a proper step back.
As a first consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the newly formed Republic of Kazakhstan, where the Baikonur site is located, raised the question of who should, from that moment on, manage the famous cosmodrome and all the logistics and technical facilities connected to it.
Since 1992, the government of the Russian Federation and the Kazakh one have immediately launched a long protocol whose last act was even signed by presidents Putin and Nazerbayev in 2005, for the progressive transfer of all structures no longer used, including the Buran launch site and related shed where the last two examples of the Soviet shuttle were kept.
Until 2050, the entire part relating to the launch pads of the Soyuz and Protons will remain under the management of the Russian Federation, with a special administrative status that effectively makes that area an enclave of Russia.
In the meantime, Roscosmos‘ space activity would have been transferred to the Vostochnij cosmodrome which is being built, in preparation for the debut of the newly Orjiol piloted spacecraft and the Angara launcher.
To ensure the operational continuity of Baikonur even after the exit of Russia and its space program, the two governments signed an agreement that led to the creation of the Baiterek program.
This is a Russian-Kazakh Joint-Venture to create the infrastructure suitable for launching a medium launcher, the Soyuz-5, derived from the Ukrainian-produced Zenith rocket with orbital capacity also for the Orijol piloted vehicle.
This would have ensured that Kazhazistan could compete in launching manned and unmanned vehicles to low orbit.
The development of Soyuz-5 and the Baiterek launch complex has so far cost the Kazakh government USD 395 million; the launcher is currently at an advanced stage of development and the first test launch is expected in 2024.
Why has the situation degenerated?
From the communiqués issued by the Astana government, TzENKI has been in default regarding the non-submission of a study on the environmental impact that the Baiterek launch platform would present in the environment of the Kazakh steppe.
It is useful to recall that the future Baiterek/Soyuz-5 system would use launch pad 45, already existing in Baikonur, of the Zenith system.
TzENKI has repeatedly claimed to have produced such a study, but the Astana government, much more concerned about leaving the Russian sphere of influence and the possible low economic return of the system, once fully operational, has stated the opposite.
Hence TzENKI’s claim of USD 30 million for breach of contract and USD 4 million in uncollected taxes.
As a result, some facilities owned by TzENKI were seized.
However, these were only structures not related to the Soyuz and Proton systems, and, therefore, the activity of Roscosmos at present continues regularly.
What will happen now?
Despite everything, the representatives of Roscosmos and the Kazakh space agency are intensifying meetings to resolve the issue, also in anticipation of President Putin’s scheduled visit to Astana this year.
The Minister of Scientific Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan himself tried to defuse the controversy.
In reality, the issue is leading Roscosmos to rethink the Baiterek program, which could close the doors to Baikonur forever.
At present, it is no longer possible to stop the development of the Soyuz-5 but, without the launch platform 45 and a similar one at Vostochnij, the only way to give the Sojuz-5 the way to space is to recycle the Sea Launch Odyssey structure which was used as an ocean platform for the launch of the old Zenith.
Perhaps a move to distance itself from Russian influence could become a boomerang for the Republic of Kazakhstan that might find itself with a handful of scrap metal in its hand.