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April 12 2013 12:01 PM

From the Desert Steppe of Kazakhstan Into the Vastness of Outer Space

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"Dear friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world! Within minutes from now, a mighty Soviet rocket will boost my ship into the vastness of outer space. What I want to tell you is this. My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me."

Those were the words of Yuri Gagarin 52 years ago on April 12, 1961. Minutes later the cosmonaut lifted off in the Vostok 1 spacecraft, becoming the first human to reach outer space and enter orbit around the Earth. His journey into space began in the desolate desert steppe of Kazakhstan at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's oldest and largest space launch facility. The Cosmodrome was built in the 1950s as a secret missile testing site and as the base of operations for the Soviet space program. The former Soviet Union deliberately attempted to mislead the West about the facility's true location, but was spotted by a high-altitude reconnaissance jet in the summer of 1957, just months before the launch of Sputnik 1, and only a few years before Yuri's famous flight. 


As the most active spaceport in the world, the Baikonur Cosmodrome has a long list of achievements. Luckily, the Cosmodrome is a far less secretive place today than it was during the Cold War, and visitors can learn about the history of the Soviet and Russian space programs and about Yuri's flight at the museum in the city of Baikonur just outside the complex. 

And for more explosive thrills, tours offered by private companies offer the public a chance to witness the launches of manned and unmanned space missions from the Cosmodrome facilities.

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