Russian President Vladimir Putin flew nearly 3,500 miles to attend the first rocket launch from the Vostochny spaceport in the country’s Far East on Wednesday; but technical glitches pushed the launch to Thursday.
Putin initially reprimanded the head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin for the delay but nonetheless spoke glowingly after the Thursday successful launch which sent a Soyuz-2.1A rocket carrying three satellites into orbit.
“I am happy to welcome you to Vostochny, a new and actually the first ever Russian spaceport,” Putin said.
The Baikonur cosmodrome, in modern-day Kazakhstan, has been the world’s most important spaceport since its construction in the late 1950s by the Soviet Union. Sputnik launched from the steppe in 1957 and so did Yuri Gagarin in 1961. After the collapse of the union in 1991, Russia leased the cosmodrome from Kazakhstan in order to continue manned launches into space and at present–after the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011–it is the only site in the world which launches manned missions. Every astronaut headed to the International Space Station blasts off from the Kazakh steppe. In 2005, Moscow extended its lease on the facility to 2050 but hopes the Vostochny spaceport will be able to take over as Russia’s main launch site before then.
The Vostochny spaceport is located in Russia’s Far East near the Chinese border. According to a BBC report, to get there one has to fly at least seven hours to Blagoveshchensk and then an additional hour and a half by helicopter to Vostochny, which once hosted “a top secret site with a Soviet nuclear missile division.” Construction on the spaceport began in 2011 but has been plagued along the way by corruption, work stoppages and technical problems. 2018, however, remains the target for completion of the $3 billion facility.
Last year workers complained that they had not been paid for months. Anton Tyurishev, an employee of the Pacific Ocean Bridge-building Company (TMK) constructing the spaceport, complained about the issue during Putin’s annual call-in show in 2015. He was arrested earlier this month, on April 13, days before the 2016 edition which workers were planning to call-into again. Tyurishev was released on Thursday.
In his remarks after the successful launch, Putin shifted blame for the delay to prudent computer systems. “As you know, computers played it safe and aborted yesterday’s flight to go through their checklists once more,” he said. “There is no harm done. On the contrary, everything has been done with quality in mind, in the best possible manner.”