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The two cosmonauts due to dock with the Mir Space Station Thursday are facing an enormous task -- to repair both the troubled space station and the tarnished image of Russia's space programme.

But you don't need to go as far as they have to see where Russia's space programme has begun to fall apart.

Many of the problems begin at the headquarters in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

It was one of the most closely-watched launches in recent times.

(M) Millions of people all over the world saw the Soyuz rocket take off from Baikonur on its mission to repair the Mir space station.

The lift-off was a success, but the question marks over the future of Russia's manned space programme remain.

These days the only things accelerating at Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome are children on bikes.

Once the pride and joy of the Soviet space program, the Baikonur cosmodrome and the town nearby comprised a secret space complex closed to the world.

It was home to the brightest in the Russian space program.

But once the Soviet Union fell apart, and, one by one, its republics began to claim independence, Baikonur, located in the new sovereign nation of Kazakhstan, no longer belonged to Russia.

As government coffers dried up, Baikonur too became a casualty of the Russian transformation to a market economy.

For more than two years, it languished in the no-man's-land of the new Kazakh government -- Russians moved out en masse and unemployed Kazakhs moved in.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
\"How has Baikonur changed? Just look around you, you can see that everything is in disrepair, everything is falling apart. And all of this is the legacy of the two years of Kazakh administration, this is what the Kazakh President has done for us.\"
SUPER CAPTION: Vadim Slivin, Director of Baikonur Culture Center

Baikonur was built by the Russians in the 1950's and remained a closed city for nearly 40 years.

The population was 90 per cent Russian -- builders and scientists labouring away for the aggressive Soviet space program.

Baikonur was the site of achievements -- it is the home of many space firsts.

The first man to orbit the earth blasted off from Baikonur as did the first ever satellite, the first woman in space and the longest living space station, Mir.

But Baikonur has seen better days.

Russia now rents the cosmodrome from Kazakhstan for 115 (m) million U-S dollars a year -- money the struggling nation can barely afford.

And then there is the upkeep of the cosmodrome itself.

Many of its programmes have stopped altogether, the others are in such disrepair that they might as well have been abandoned.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
\"Russia and many other countries have put a lot into creating Baikonur, In its time we had everything here. Now we need to carry on that legacy and improve and develop the cosmodrome, even reconstruct it and many of the programs here. It's not important who does it but it has to be done.\"
SUPER CAPTION: Alexei Shumilin, Head of Baikonur Cosmodrome

A twenty year rent contract guarantees Russian control of the cosmodrome until the year 2015, but no one knows what will happen when it expires.

The Russian Space Agency and the military are looking for investors in Baikonur but until they find them the cosmodrome lies in disrepair -- a dusty image of past Soviet glory.

The list of failures is long.

The Buran -- Russia's version of the space shuttle - billions of dollars spent and only one semi-successful flight.

And then there is the Energia booster -- perhaps the world's most powerful rocket -- but a project also put on hold due to lack of finances.

SOUNDBITE: (English)



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