Nail-biting start for Russia's new Vostochny space centre

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Media captionInside Russia's new space port

"Oh please, darling, fly!"

A technician standing behind me was really nervous during the launch countdown at Vostochny, a new space centre in Russia's Far East.

It was the second launch attempt - a day after the previous one had been aborted at the last minute.

I noticed that some of the technician's colleagues also had pale faces and had crossed their fingers.

It emerged later that a cable malfunction had led to the postponement of Wednesday's launch.

This time there was relief for Russia's federal space agency, Roscosmos, as the Soyuz rocket, carrying three satellites, blasted off and the booster stage separated.

President Vladimir Putin had travelled 5,500km (3,500 miles) to watch the launch and was in a black mood after Wednesday's cancellation, berating Vostochny's managers for the financial scandals that have blighted this prestige project.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Russia wants to show international partners that it is still a superpower in space
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Putin watched the unmanned rocket lift off successfully on Thursday

As the rocket soared away from Earth the tension evaporated - the crowd around me was laughing, hugging, drinking champagne.

Only the essential launchpad structures have been finished at Vostochny, which is still a big building site. The original plan was to have it all ready by December 2015.

When we inspected the launchpad later it appeared to be in good shape. A huge metal covering for the service cabin had plunged onto a concrete chute for the rocket exhaust gases. But a specialist insisted that the damage was not serious.

Image caption A giant tower holds the rocket in place before launch
Image caption The fierce blast during lift-off sent this metal covering crashing to the ground from the tower

Hours earlier President Putin had warned of consequences for the management failures at Vostochny.

"If their guilt is proven, they will have to change their warm beds at home for plank-beds in prison," Mr Putin said, commenting on the arrest of four senior people involved in the project.

Only hours after Vostochny's first launch one of those managers received a three-year jail sentence for massive embezzlement.

Strategic move

Vostochny is a pet project for Mr Putin. Russia's ambition is to develop it as the main civilian space centre, eventually replacing Baikonur, the Soviet-era cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Baikonur has potential political risks, being outside Russia.

So Vostochny has political and propaganda significance: it must prove that, despite international sanctions and a struggling economy, Russia can still complete a new cosmodrome and run it efficiently.

Image caption New railway lines had to be built at the vast site
Image caption Inside the launchpad: President Putin is closely monitoring the project

The next day I asked Roscosmos head Igor Komarov how he had felt before the second, successful, launch attempt.

"How do you think I felt?" he answered, grim-faced.

The authorities were so nervous that they banned all live broadcasting before the launch and for the 10 minutes after lift-off.

But Roscosmos officials have spoken optimistically about Vostochny becoming a centre for international space co-operation in future.

The Plesetsk cosmodrome, in Russia's Arctic north, will remain the centre for military space launches.

Away from the launchpad, much of the infrastructure at Vostochny remains unfinished. The engineers are in no hurry now; the next launch will not take place until next year.

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