james oberg logo



space shuttle




Let Jim Oberg Show You “Inside Baykonur”

Oberg has been traveling to Baykonur on behalf of commercial consulting clients since the opening of the former Soviet Union’s space center in the early 1990s, and has been awarded the ‘Veteran of Baykonur’ certificate by officials there. He has been from one end of the vast space center to the other, has accumulated exclusive maps and photographs of the facilities there, and has delved into the hidden history of the spaceport’s triumphs and tragedies. He has shared these insights in his writings and in personal encounters with his clients. Conversant in French and Russian and with a smattering of Kazakh, he is a legendary figure in the Russian space community, a foreigner who recognizes their achievements, realizes the often bitter price their workers had to pay for success, and respects their tragic losses even as he forced open the shrouds of secrecy that had been wrapped around them for decades.

On a commercial consulting basis, Oberg can prepare special guidebooks and maps, present pre-trip orientation lectures to travelers, and as desired, accompany individuals or small groups as on-site guide. Schedules and prices will be arranged on a case-by-case basis.

Statement on Baykonur Tour Philosophy and Practice

My approach to the Russia space tour is to draw ‘rocket science’ into the circle of human virtues such as ingenuity, courage, and perseverance, along with human failings such as wishful thinking, ignoring ‘bad news’, and the passion for personal power and glorification. I do this at Baykonur to show the artistry and creativity and some dead-ended detours expressed not in marble or canvas or textile but in steel and concrete and ablative heat shields.

As I prepare the travelers for each new visit I describe the physical objects we will see -- some immense and awe-inspiring, some much smaller but even more humanly important -- and how and why people created them, how they succeeded or failed, and what were the human consequences of either fates. We will visit scenes of triumph that will be remembered when the names of the space fliers, their spaceships, even their countries have been forgotten; we will visit scenes of bitter disappointment and mind-numbing tragedy, much of whose history remained covered up by Soviet officials but was doggedly ferreted out by historians in Russia and overseas, often many years or even decades later [I was one of them].

I will discuss how in the unearthly and inhuman environment of outer space, some traditional human virtues have proved critical, while other modes of thought have needed alteration or even total revision -- specific examples cast a new light on ordinary life that broadens each traveler’s perceptions of his/her own everyday reality forever.

For preparation and real-time reference I have created detailed presentations of what will be seen and what it means, and what will not be shown (except at a distance, perhaps -- in time or in space), and what THAT means -- along with maps published only in the past year or two. There has been a revolution in accessibility to images of Russian space-related facilities in recent years, driven by the Internet [and by Google-Earth’s space views of their ground facilities], and it has been a challenge to keep up with this torrent and to integrate it into meaningful and usable patterns -- and I have specialized in that, both for visiting groups and for my primary news media client, NBC News. Even the Russian experts we will be meeting often don’t have such good maps and such views yet.

My ‘persona’ within the Russian space industry is as a foreign admirer of their accomplishments, with a professional appreciation [as a rocket scientist myself] of how hard they actually were to pull off despite Soviet propaganda of ‘inevitable triumph’. But I’m also respected as a critic of falsification and deception where it can be identified [my collection of cosmonaut group portrait forgeries, where failed candidates are airbrushed out of a scene that is later republished -- even after the original version has been in print already -- is famous]. My books are on display in their top private and public space museums because of my tributes to their accomplishments and to the truth behind them -- truth being a commodity even more valued in Soviet days when it was much more rare than today.

This feature of ‘Russian space history’ -- that it took enormous human effort to find out what really had happened and why -- means that most subjects can’t simply be reported as ‘revealed truths’ whose facts were obvious from the start. Instead, the very process of FINDING OUT is often the most amazing aspect of the original event. This process runs from what was originally claimed, or covered up, through rumors and distorted or misinterpreted clues, via comparisons of hypotheses with parallel Western space experiences (often surprisingly misleading), to the ‘glasnost- era of initial home-grown Russian space history research (including the mysterious deaths of several of the leading figures in this movement) and the integration of these raw materials by Western historians (mostly amateurs), to access to official records, locations, even leftover space hardware. Here, too, the human experience of investigation, in which I was a leading participant for more than thirty years, outshines the cold narrative of bare events.

The end result of this approach, in my intention, is to literally triple the experience value to each traveler, and to prepare them for each day’s experiences by providing a framework and context so they are not overwhelmed with concrete and steel and gadgets and gizmos. This is so that they spot things in real time, recognize them, and feel (correctly) that THEY are in control of the sensory sequences. This also means that when there are [as there WILL be] surprises -- unpredicted opportunities to see events, objects, people, processes -- they can be recognized for the enormously interesting bonuses they are, and not be overlooked or underappreciated due to sensory overload or accidental distraction.

I am conversant in Russian -- but require an interpreter for serious conversations -- and French (not so useful in Russia), with a smattering of Kazakh that is disproportionately advantageous at the Baykonur Cosmodrome where the locals resent an imperial Russian snobbery toward their now-independent country and react with enormous glee and gratitude to any white man even trying to say ‘thank you’ (“rakh-met”) in their own tongue. What this means for the future of the Russian space center there, versus the local resentments and the threat of political instability when the current ‘strong man’ inevitably dies, is another ‘big picture’ space-strategy-related story that is best explained while walking on the very ground being contested. It is the kind of perspective I strive for -- space may BE a vacuum, but space FLIGHT does not take PLACE in a vacuum, it is a fundamentally human activity that all humans can appreciate when presented properly.

Sample Post-Tour Evaluations by Customers

“You couldn’t have found a better study leader. He was above and beyond!!! And a joy to be with and a lot of fun.”

“Wonderful -- he kept the tour connected by preparing us for each stop.”

“A fountain of knowledge about a pioneer time in our and Russia’s space program. Jim’s curiosity and excitement was contagious.”

“Strongest element of the educational experience. A great tour pardner.”

“He is extremely knowledgeable and he seemed to know everyone in the space industry. I envy his ability to remember names.”

“James was extremely patient with us! He shepherded his flock along in more ways than one to ensure a fantastic tour. Rather than assume or inject, Jim paced the group with daily doses of applicable knowledge, always aware of our breaking point.”

“Very knowledgeable and accessible. I learned so much from him.”

“Jim is a kindly human encyclopedia on all aspects of space exploration.”

“Never a person I will ever meet again -- outstanding at all times.”

Other offerings

Equivalent tour preparation and escort services are available for Moscow space sites such as the ‘Star City’ cosmonaut village and training center, the Mission Control Center (“TsUP”), public museums such as the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (at the VDNKh) and the home Museum of Sergey Korolev, the space pioneers necropolis at the Novodevichiy Cemetery, and corporate space technology museums such as at the Energiya Rocket and Space Company, the Khrunichev Center, the Lavochkin Bureau, and elsewhere.

Oberg is also developing a guidebook and program for the Plesetsk Cosmodrome north of Moscow, built as a nuclear attack base in the cold war and later converted to space launches (many of which were widely seen and misunderstood in northwestern Russia, sparking Russia’s most famous “UFO attacks” in the 1960’s and 1970’s), now a military and commercial launch center, and future home to Russia’s planned ‘Angara’ next-generation space booster family. Visits are to include original launch pads and nuclear weapons bunkers, memorials to successes and disasters (such as the 50 men killed in a pad accident in 1980 whose origin remains hotly debated), and the nearby 1919 battlefield between Bolshevik units and US troops from Michigan sent to assist democratic forces in the Russian civil war.



oberg corner piece

home | profile | articles | books | lectures | jim speaks | humor
links | email

Copyright 2010 James Oberg. All Rights Reserved
Site Designed and Maintained by YoeYo.com

oberg corner piece