“Who else do you know in the world that lives under the paths of rockets, where pieces are designed to fall from the sky, or blow up entirely, and are told that things are ok?” (Kazakh environmental activist in Kopak 2019:562)

n this quote, a Kazakh environmental activist raises the problem of rocket debris launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Rockets delivering spacecraft or crew to orbit are mostly built in stages. Only the final stage reaches Earth’s orbit, while earlier stages fall on its surface along the flight trajectory of the rocket. Resorting to irony, the activist expresses his frustration about the practices of Kazakhstan’s government to cover up any negative environmental and social consequences of the Russian space program at Baikonur such as toxic material and fuel wakes of heptyl.

Why, indeed, do people have to live under the paths of rockets where pieces fall from the sky or blow up? Most major spaceports in the world such as Cape Canaveral or Kourou in French Guyana are positioned on the coast, and drop rocket parts and fuel into the ocean (Kopak 2019:562). The steppes of Kazakhstan lie at the heart of the Eurasian continent, and could not be farther away from the sea. Existing research suggests a connection between the positioning of launch facilities, colonial or post-colonial relations, and marginalised areas and people (Gorman and O'Leary 2013:416), for example in the cases of rocket launch sites of Woomera in Australia and Kourou in French Guayana (Gorman 2007, Redfield 2000). I take these observations as a starting point to look into the history of rocket debris falling on the Kazakh steppe.

Image 1: Rocket booster engine of crashed Soyuz spacecraft on the Kazakh steppe (credit: Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum 2000)

Space exploration (and the ramifications thereof) are often narrated within a capitalist and/or neoliberal context. With a focus on ongoing commercialisation and privatisation of outer space, scholars discuss space debris as an ethical challenge related to colonisation and worlding beyond Earth (Kearnes and van Dooren 2017), as a collective action problem for risk and pollution (Ormrod 2012, Reno 2018), as an extraterritorial footprint of global capitalism (Damjanov 2015), as a cases of environmental injustice by compromising later-coming space-faring nations’ access to space (Klinger 2019) and as a threat to the very functioning of our global media society based on satellite technology (Damjanov 2017). The case of space debris in Kazakhstan, however, reveals that postcolonial and postsocialist relations continue to inform spatial politics despite ongoing the commercialisation and privatisation of Baikonur Cosmodrome. I argue that it is important to shed light on these relations, because they give insight into persisting forms of “non-capitalist” space-making that a focus on capitalist and/or neoliberal frameworks fails to reveal. Thus I suggest an alternative analytical perspective that has the potential to foreground these relations.

I want to use the concept of “imperial debris” (Stoler 2008) to examine rocket debris on the Kazakh steppe. Imperial debris denotes the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things that result from an imperial formation, not necessarily of the capitalist hue. Such formations are relations of force, which “[…] harbour political forms that endure beyond the formal exclusions that legislate against equal opportunity, commensurate dignities and equal rights” (Stoler 2008:193). The durability of these political forms, she argues, becomes manifest in imperial debris as social and material fragments and ruins. Taking inspiration from Stoler, I conceive of rocket debris in Kazahkstan as imperial debris. I set out to examine the imperial and post-imperial political configurations that link the launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome to the dump areas for rocket debris in Kazakhstan

Image 2: The Soyuz rocket is transported to the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome (credit: Bill Ignalls 2019 / NASA)

The story of rocket debris on the Kazakh steppe as imperial debris begins at its main pivot: the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan. Scholars usually trace the history of its location back to Cold War politics of militarisation and secrecy (Siddiqi 2000, Kopak 2019, Villain 1996). Yet it goes back further to the Russian Imperial conquest of Central Asia during the 18th and 19th century (Morrison 2014). Under Russian rule, the Trans-Aral railway was built in 1906 and connected Tashkent to Moscow via Orenburg - the first and only railway across the vast steppe of Kazakhstan, replacing former caravans that travelled on multiple routes. This railway enabled a rapid deployment of Russian troops to Central Asia (Morrisson 2012). It also served the transportation of raw cotton to textile factories in Moscow, one of the primary reason for the Russian conquests of Central Asia (Obertreis 2017).

The Baikonur Cosmodrome was later built along this artery of Russian military control, colonial exploitation and industrial modernity. In 1955, Soviet planners eventually chose Tyuratam, a small village located in southern Kazakhstan at the railway station on the Trans-Aral railway, for the site of the planned Soviet spaceport. Founded around 1900 with the installation of a water pump to refill the steam engines, Tyuratam had the advantage of being connected to the industrial centres of the Soviet Union and to Moscow via the railway. It was one of the locations with closest proximity to the equator without bordering another country. It had a big enough area available to build a large space complex, and was remote enough to keep the complex secret. Lastly, it had the opportunity for eastward or near-eastward launches over an area described as “sparsely populated” (Kopak 2019:557, Zak 2020).

Baikonur Cosmodrome became the emblem of Soviet modernity, from where the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957 and the first human in space in 1961 were launched. Baikonur city, the residential area for service personnel and their families, was its architectural expression. Built on a template of late Soviet urbanity, it shared architectural elements with other “settlements of urban type” in Central Asia: apartment blocks, a park, a central square, a cinema, a theater, a house of culture, educational and health-care facilities and perhaps a nearby recreational area or facility. This layout expressed the Soviet socialist idea of a worker’s life divided in work and recreation. But it also carried a civilizational message through street names referring to Russian or Soviet history, and the promotion of European classical rather than Central Asian music (Akiner 1995). Aesthetically, Baikonur city shared the functional and minimalist modernism of the Khrushchev period with other infrastructure of the space program (Lewis 2011:219). It was home to mostly Russians or Russian-speaking Soviet nationalities with privileged access to consumer goods not available to other towns. With close discursive and material links to Moscow, such settlements were conceived as outposts in the remote and non-European parts of the Soviet Union.

Image 3: A view of Baikonur city in 2019 (credit: Petr Trotsenko / Radio Azattyk 2019)

Outside Baikonur, the world was different. The city and the spaceport were built on the vast steppe landscape with harsh and unpredictable climatic conditions, and surrounded by a rural world of animal husbandry and agriculture – a world often looked down upon by city dwellers. Predominantly shaped by Kazakh cultural traditions, this world was also foreign to them. Until today, the area to the east has been referred to as “downrange” from Baikonur - the drop zone for rocket debris (Zak 2017). In multiple ways, this area represented the other side of the coin of Soviet modernity: rural, backwards, indigenous, and wasteland. The idea of the steppe as remote and sparsely populated goes back to the Russian conquest of Central Asia and the early years of rule – again a colonial history. Russian planners and irrigation engineers referred to it as bleak, deserted, dead, and, most importantly, empty (Bichsel 2017). This provided an ideal framing for a drop zone.

Space exploration at Baikonur also categorised and established hierarchies between groups of people. The first classification concerns the so-called “sparse population” versus the cosmonauts. While the former were herders and farmers exposed to the risk of falling debris and fuel wakes, the latter were considered heroes of the Soviet Union and a vanguard for humanity in outer space. Second, space exploration brought about ethnic stratification. Ethnically, Soviet astronauts were almost exclusively Russians. Central Asians were generally underrepresented in science, technology and heavy industry in the Soviet Union (Lubin 1984). The first ethnic Kazakh astronaut, Toktar Aubakirov, flew to space station Mir shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union on the insistence of the new government of Kazakhstan (Ujica 1997).

Image 4: Russian search and rescue teams arrive at Soyuz spacecraft shortly after it landed on the Kazakh steppe (credit: Bill Ingalls 2016 / NASA)

The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a shock to Baikonur. Its status presented a particular challenge for Soviet disintegration, and is revealing for post-Soviet relations of force. Formerly leased by the Soviet Ministry of Defence, Baikonur suddenly became part of Kazakhstan’s territory. The launch facilities represented a huge financial asset, and the Russian Federation, declaring itself as the successor state of the former Soviet Union, laid claim to them. Eventually, an agreement between the Russia and Kazakhstan in 1994 settled the Russian lease of the spaceport for the sum of 115 million US dollars per year, later extended until 2050. Through this lease, Russia - via the state agency Roscosmos - exerts quasi-sovereignty over Baikonur. Access to Baikonur city requires a special permission, and the currency used is Russian Roubles. The spatial extent of Russian quasi-sovereignty is not fixed, but fluctuating along the flight trajectories of rockets, as Russian mobile teams move into Kazakhstan to recover rocket stages (Kopak 2019). Scrap metal dealers compete with recovery teams for rocket debris and salvage light metal, titanium and aluminium alloys, and copper wire. Rocket parts also find other uses as local building material such as roofs, and even for tools and children’s toboggans (Cooper 2018).

Image 5: Kazakh herders crossing tarmac at Arkalyk helicopter base in Kazakhstan used for the recovery of landed Soyuz spacecraft (credit: Bill Ingalls 2008 / NASA)

So, as the activist asks at the beginning of this paper, things keep falling from the sky in Kazakhstan because of the imperial formation of Russian military conquest and colonial exploitation, Soviet ethno-territorial statehood and technological modernity, and Cold War geopolitics. Today, Baikonur Cosmodrome is mainly used for commercial purposes, and the facility might be sold to a private company in the future. However, the material and immaterial historical trajectories of this imperial formation will likely remain in place for a long time yet. They will continue to inform the relationship between the launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome and the dump areas for rocket debris in Kazakhstan, even though this relationship is being reframed in capitalist terms. If we want to answer the activist’s question, it is crucial to reveal these “non-capitalist” forms of creating space (and waste, for that matter) that are often hidden from view as scholars give primacy to the analysis of capitalist relations and processes.

Therefore, I argue that we need to go beyond using capitalism as an exclusive framing device to understand the spatial politics of rocket debris in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Rephrasing Stoler’s words (2008:204), capitalism can account for that rocket debris falls from the sky, but not on whose heads this debris might fall, what this means for these people have to deal with it, and, ultimately, how this particular area was made a suitable site for debris in the first place (Stoler 2008:204). The analytical perspective of rocket stages as imperial debris has the power to reveal the historical trajectories of postcolonial and postsocialist relations that inform ongoing commercialisation and privatisation in space exploration. It provides an important alternative to the current focus on capitalism and neoliberalism to examine space exploration.


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Christine Bichsel is a professor in human geography at the University of Fribourg with a focus on research in political geography and environmental history.