Space attractions of Altai: The land where rockets fall from the sky
Space attractions of Altai: The land where rockets fall from the sky

Residents of the Altai Territory can observe incredible beauty every day - these are powerful mountain peaks, powdered with snow, and dense pine forests, and lakes with water so clear that you can see the bottom. The mountains are not very densely populated, sometimes it takes several hours to travel from village to village. But the locals do not get bored, their life is full of worries - to graze sheep and cows, take care of vegetable gardens and at the same time collect the remains of spaceships.

Altai mountains

The Altai region is directly under the trajectory of rockets from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Every time fuel tanks, empty boosters and other parts are detached from the rocket, all this falls on the Altai region, frightening local residents, and sometimes even killing local livestock and destroying local houses. It is not uncommon for the government to reimburse villagers for damage if their property is seriously damaged.

Baikonur on the map

It is believed that since the opening of the spaceport in 1955, more than 2,500 tons of various parts of the rockets have fallen to the ground. For example, test cosmonaut S.V. Krichevsky gave the following information: from 1986 to 2001, 102 launch vehicles were launched under the Mir station program, which weighed about 40 thousand tons. But at the same time, the payload was only 2%, and the rest was waste, of which 90% is toxic rocket fuel, and 8% are spent stages of carriers falling to the ground.

A fragment of a rocket lying in the steppe. Photo: Jonas Bendiksen

Local residents are warned about the new launch 24 hours in advance. Usually, such waste falls in more or less predictable areas, but there are exceptions. In 2008, for example, a multi-ton metal block from a rocket fell directly into a village in the immediate vicinity of a residential building. In 2011, fuel tanks fell to the ground, which exploded on contact with the ground, and the explosion knocked out windows from all houses within a radius of 100 km.

A local resident walks past the fallen part of the rocket. Photo: Jonas Bendiksen Altai mountains

During the USSR, the government was extremely concerned that such falling debris did not fall into the wrong hands - fearing Western intelligence, which might learn classified technologies, they tried to find such falling missile parts immediately after their fall and evacuate them. Now this mission has been unofficially undertaken by the locals - but with a completely different purpose.

Villagers show things made from missile debris. Photo: Jonas Bendiksen

After each missile launch, local residents go out with binoculars, trying to see where the missile parts landed. They ride jeeps, horses with carts to the crash site and cut out all valuable materials - copper wires, titanium and aluminum alloys with blowtorches. Everything that cannot be sold as scrap metal or sold is used by villagers to furnish their homes - roofs for sheds, walls for chicken coops, toilets and even sleds for children are made from space rockets.

They are trying to remove all valuable materials from the fallen debris. Photo: Jonas Bendiksen Altai region

Such "gifts from heaven" could be considered an excellent help in the household, if they were not so dangerous to health. When launching rockets, toxic fuel is used, which includes heptyl and its derivatives, nitrogen tetroxide, which, even in the smallest doses, cause severe pathologies in both humans and animals. For example, local activists associate it with the activities of Baikonur that in May-June 2015 saigas were massively killed in Kazakhstan. An increase in the level of immunodeficiency diseases and cancer among local residents is also associated with this.

Locals monitor the sky in anticipation of falling debris. Photo: Jonas Bendiksen

This problem is relevant not only for Russia - the Chinese cosmodrome is also located inside the continent, and all waste from missile launches also falls on populated regions.It is believed that the harm from such launches can be (relatively) minimized by launching rockets in close proximity to the ocean. Another way to solve the problem is to develop safer fuels - several organizations are now working on this, including NASA and ESA. In the meantime, the problems remain relevant.

Altai mountains

About how Tyuratam became Baikonur, and Why the Soviet cosmodrome could not be detected by the CIA, read in See our article on this topic.

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