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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