By Andrey BORODULIN
Baikonur, Kazakhstan (AFP) Sept 15, 2023
Everyone should witness a rocket launch in their lifetime, says Yevgeniya Degtyarnikova as she watches the rollout of a Soyuz from its hangar in the vast steppes of Kazakhstan.
"Unfortunately, my husband could not come so I am fulfilling my dream and his," said the 35-year-old from the city of Tyumen in western Siberia.
"I will bring my entire family here. This is the place that everyone must visit," she told AFP at the Russian-operated Baikonur spaceport.
Degtyarnikova, the owner of an amusement park, has forked out over 200,000 rubles (more than $2,000) for a week-long tour to Baikonur which included viewing a rocket launch on Friday.
She was one of a few hundred spectators who excitedly watched a Soyuz slowly emerge from its hangar, laid on its side, this week.
Russian, US and Kazakh flags could be seen fluttering in the wind nearby.
- 'Political situation' -
Space is still a rare area of cooperation between Moscow and Washington, and on Friday NASA astronaut Loral O'Hara travelled to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft alongside Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub.
But as ties between Russia and the United States remain ruptured over Moscow's offensive in Ukraine, the Baikonur cosmodrome has become increasingly off limits to foreigners.
Western tourists used to regularly travel to Baikonur for the thrill of watching rockets blast off into space. Now they have been replaced by well-off tourists from Russia and other post-Soviet countries.
While Russian space agency Roscosmos declined to comment on the matter, one tour guide at Baikonur said she only worked with tourists from Russia and other countries of the former USSR.
"Roscosmos does not allow other tourists in," 28-year-old Maria Fateyeva told AFP, citing the "political situation."
She said the restrictions saddened her, and that space and politics should not be mixed.
Local tourism has increased in recent years, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing many Russians to choose destinations across the former Soviet Union and Western sanctions over Ukraine complicating foreign travel.
- 'Very expensive' -
Nikolai Silyukov, who teaches aeromodelling, came to Baikonur with a group of pupils from the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
"We've bought the complete package," said the 25-year-old, adding they had already visited local museums.
His group prepared to take pictures of the moment a rocket spewed a torrent of flame.
"They say that the launch lasts only a few seconds," he said. "We need to make it!"
Yevgeny Zadoya, a 44-year-old tour guide from Saint Petersburg, accompanied a dozen rich tourists.
They drove around in Porsches brought to Baikonur for the occasion and stayed in the spaceport's most expensive hotel, Zadoya said.
He declined to give the cost of a tailor-made tour, only saying "it is very expensive."
NASA astronaut O'Hara said at the pre-launch press conference this week that she was not disappointed by the absence of Western tourists.
"I think we're surrounded by a lot of great people, and I have my family here in the audience, and it's really special and amazing to have them here," she said.
Russia's Kononenko agreed that cosmonauts were more concerned about the presence of their loved ones at Baikonur.
But he added: "It would be cool if the world's spaceports were accessible to all people, and people from all over the world could come and watch the launch."