"Dear friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world! Within minutes from now, a mighty Soviet rocket will boost my ship into the vastness of outer space. What I want to tell you is this. My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me."
Those were the words of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, minutes before the cosmonaut lifted off in the Vostok 1 spacecraft, becoming the first human to reach outer space and enter orbit around the Earth. His journey began at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's oldest and largest space launch facility, set in the desolate desert steppe of Kazakhstan.
The Cosmodrome was built in the 1950s as a secret missile testing site and as the base of operations for the Soviet space program. Using the name and coordinates of the small mining town of Baikonur, about 200 miles northeast of the actual launch complex, the former Soviet Union deliberately attempted to mislead the West about the facility's true location.
No amount of obfuscation could hide the Cosmodrome from America's famous U-2 spy planes, however. One of the high-altitude reconnaissance jets spotted the complex in the summer of 1957, around the same time that the facility was testing the first intercontinental ballistic missiles and just months before Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite put into space, was launched from its pads.
In fact, as the most active spaceport in the world, the Baikonur Cosmodrome has a long list of achievements, some of which tend to be overshadowed by Gagarin's famed flight. And occasionally, as in the case of Sputnik 2, an accomplishment is marred by a tragic back story. Laika, a stray mutt with astronomically bad luck, was taken from the streets of Moscow to Baikonur only to undergo months of training for a certain-death mission that saw her become the first animal to reach space. It was not until 2002, over forty years after the mission, that a former Sputnik scientist finally came clean about the details of the dog's death, which had been caused by heat exhaustion only five to seven hours after the launch.
Today, the Cosmodrome is a far less secretive place, and visitors can learn about the history of the Soviet and Russian space programs at the museum in the city of Baikonur just outside the complex. And for more explosive thrills, tours offered by private companies offer the public a chance to witness the launches of manned and unmanned space missions from the Cosmodrome facilities.