Rocket Wastelands in Kazakhstan: Scientific Authoritarianism and the Baikonur Cosmodrome

Authors: Robert Kopack*, University of Toronto
Topics: Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Environment, Political Geography
Keywords: Toxicity, Space, Kazakhstan, Russia, Baikonur
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Iberville, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In this article, I examine how the authoritarian control of scientific research with regard to the
Russian space program and the Baikonur Cosmodrome sustains toxic geographies and an
information void in Kazakhstan. Baikonur is the oldest, largest, and now busiest space complex
in the world operating continuously since the clandestine Soviet program began in 1957. After
1991, Baikonur became part of a global services industry. Since 2007, a string of violent
explosions of “Proton” class rocket engines, littering designated “fall zones” in Central
Kazakhstan with toxic debris, have awaked an environmental movement over the use of a highly
caustic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic dimethyl-hyrdazine (heptyl) fuel. When activists’
opposition to the use of Proton engines is not squelched as an irrational fear of the cosmos or
“cosmophobia,” Russian and Kazakh authorities resort to censorship, intimidation, and
imprisonment. While located in Kazakhstan, Baikonur’s launch facilities, the adjacent closed city
of the same name, and rocket “fall zones” are administered by the Russian Federation through
several post-Soviet techno-diplomatic leasing agreements. All environmental assessment or
remediation related to Baikonur is channeled through the Russian Space Agency (RosCosmos)
rendering access, publishing, and independent scientific research outside of public scrutiny.
Based upon 20 months of field research and key interviews with Russian space industry actors,
Kazakh state officials, environmental groups, environmental consultants, and local citizens I
examine how a post-Soviet global space industry depends upon secrecy and the maintenance of a
physical wasteland for rocket debris, together with an information wasteland for competing
claims to truth.

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