National Geographic Society Newsroom

As Beautiful as a Spaceport?

Many apologies for the long radio silence. This month I was taking a break from space and immersing myself in the wonders of climate modeling at NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I did, however, get to feed my astro-addiction during the evening hours with a copy of Space Tourists, a 2009 Swiss documentary...

Many apologies for the long radio silence. This month I was taking a break from space and immersing myself in the wonders of climate modeling at NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

I did, however, get to feed my astro-addiction during the evening hours with a copy of Space Tourists, a 2009 Swiss documentary showing here in D.C. at the Silver Docs film festival.

To get my “in a nutshell” review of the movie, as well as other Silver Docs write-ups, head on over to the National Geographic magazine blog Pop Omnivore.

What I didn’t have room for in the review was how I was struck by images of the decayed splendor of Baikonur Cosmodrome.

According to Douglas Adams, “It is no coincidence that in no known language of the galaxy does there exist the expression ‘as beautiful as an airport.’”

I was ready to blindly apply the same to spaceports—in the U.S., at least, government installations circa the 1950s and ’60s tend to look more like unused LEGO bricks than Frank Lloyd Wright originals.

But through the lens of Space Tourists director Christian Frei, I caught a glimmer of the faded glory of Baikonur, once headquarters to the mighty Soviet space program, and the secretive training facility nearby known as Star City.

Yes, America, the Soviets beat us pretty roundly in the early days of the space race: first orbiting satellite (Sputnik 1), first living creature in space (Laika the dog), first man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin).

(Explore a space travel time line.)

What’s so great, in my mind, is that Baikonur was intended to be a huge military secret, so the Soviets built their launch facility in a remote corner of what is now Kazakhstan (see map).

It’s arid, secluded, and—in the days before Google Maps—it was way too far from any coastlines for foreign governments to easily spy on operations.

I’d expect something that hush-hush to be on the drab side. You generally don’t go into a war zone in pink lipstick and four-inch glitter heels.

Instead, the film shows us a facility once as colorful as St. Basil’s Cathedral (picture). Nearby housing complexes are painted with murals or tiled with mosaics depicting stars, planets, and rocket ships. Statues of astronauts reaching to the heavens greet visitors at doorways, a lingering hint of the nationalism the Soviet spaceport must have embodied.

Today the site stands on the brink of ruin. The housing complexes are boarded up, the paint is peeling, the statues are speckled with pigeon love. At one point the camera zooms in on what’s left of a full-scale copy of Russia’s only working space shuttle, the Buran, now just an off-white heap in an overgrown field.

But you can imagine what it must have been like when Baikonur was booming, and there’s something about the current desolation that’s stunning in its own right.

That got me thinking: If a landlocked spaceport can be beautiful, why not the spaceports that claim beachfront property?

The drama in Frei’s film comes from the fact that launching many types of spacecraft involves the use of booster rockets, which separate from the craft before reaching orbit and fall back to Earth.

When a Soyuz capsule launches from Baikonur, boosters come crashing down onto the Kazakh steppe, and not always in uninhabited areas.

By contrast, the U.S. built Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Centers on islands off sunny Florida, so that boosters simply fall into the sea and can actually be retrieved and reused.

[Full disclosure here: I have never been to Kennedy Space Center. Trust me, it’s on my list, and I hope to be blogging this fall from the next-to-last shuttle launch. For now, photos and video are the closest I’ve come, and they make coastal Florida look pretty inviting … ]

A number of spacefaring nations have adopted the beachy model.

According to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, their spaceport on the Pacific island of Tanegashima is “known as the most beautiful rocket-launch complex in the world.” There’s a phrase I never thought I’d type.

France and the European Space Agency share a spaceport along the tropical South American coast of French Guiana.

And India built its spaceport on an island off the continent’s balmy southeast.

Geographically speaking, touring spaceports of the world could become quite the tropical vacation.

The trick is that, when building a traditional launch site, there have to be more factors taken into account than proximity to water.

Being near the Equator helps, because launches can get a boost from Earth’s natural rotation speed, and craft can be more easily sent up at optimal trajectories for reaching orbit.

You also need a large enough parcel of land away from population centers, in case anything goes wrong.

The entry of private enterprise into spaceflight might change some of these rules. Virgin Galactic ships, for example, don’t use staged rocket boosters—a spaceship gets carried into the stratosphere by a larger plane, then is self-propelled into orbit.

Virgin therefore makes use of Mojave Air & Space Port, which started in 1935 as a rural airport in the California desert.

And I have to say, the terminal for Spaceport America in New Mexico, the first facility being built especially for commercial spaceflight, is pretty snazzy looking.

I respect ya, Douglas, you know I do. But maybe the phrase “as beautiful as a spaceport” is destined for our lexicon after all?

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.