Baikonur is the former Soviet spaceport that put Yuri Gagarin into space and—despite regime change and an uncomfortable proximity to Borat—is still active. This year it provided the launch pad for American billionaire Charles Simonyi and the first Malaysian cosmonaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. According to the AP, once the US space shuttle program ends in 2010, we're going to run all of our missions through the former enemy territory, a town that hasn't changed a whole lot since 1961. Here's a gallery of the quirky spacetown, plus some more wacky fun facts:• The town of 70,000 suffers extra-hot summers and freezing winters, constantly covered in dust from the surrounding hundreds of miles of scrubland, the weather extremes due to poorly planned Soviet irrigation projects of the early 20th century.
• In 1991, the Soviet collapse stranded Baikonur in the newly independent country of Kazakhstan. A local says: "We did not know what country we belonged to, but we kept on launching rockets." Russia now "rents" the cosmodrome from the Kazakhs for $105 million a year.
• Thanks to increased Russian oil money, Baikonur has seen new investment. It's a "magnet" for job-seekers, and there's a socialist system in place, with free healthcare and housing reserved for employees of the city or launch complex.
• Launch crews are a paragon of efficiency and ability, even today, to the amazement of outsiders. Mark Bowman, deputy director of the NASA Human Space Flight Program at Baikonur, told AP: "Rain or shine or sleet or snow don't matter."
We'll see you in Baikonur! (At least, we will when we score a spare $25 million for some good old-fashioned space tourism.) [AP]