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Crews prepare for launch — by clearing Kazakh steppe

SHARE Crews prepare for launch — by clearing Kazakh steppe

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — Not many shepherds can claim that dodging falling debris from a space rocket is a job hazard.

But it is for Turmuganbet Shaimov and a few others like him who roam the arid Kazakh steppe with their camels and horses around the launch pads of the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Russia rents Baikonur from its southern neighbor Kazakhstan and uses it as its main space base.

Shaimov, his wife and five children live just two miles from Baikonur's launch pad 81, from where a Russian Proton rocket carrying a service module to the International Space Station is to take off Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday his peaceful life was disturbed by the clatter of a Russian military helicopter landing in his back yard.

This is the so-called "fly-around" conducted before each launch.

A helicopter flies along the path the rocket will take as it roars into space, clearing it of all signs of life to avoid accidents as the Proton sheds used parts on its way to orbit.

Not that there is much life out here. The Kazakh steppe around Baikonur is inhospitable, dusty semi-desert, which only the hardiest think about inhabiting.

"We have always reared cattle here," said Shaimov, 37, the rocket visible behind his back. "We will just move out of the way before it happens."

Each person found is warned about the launch and signs a slip of paper which states: "I advise you to leave where you are in the interests of your safety in this area, made dangerous by the upcoming launch of a Proton rocket."

Two policemen accompanied the helicopter flight, an extra security measure after previous missions had come under fire from gangs dismantling electric cables to melt down and sell for metal scrap.

Alexander Kuznetsov, deputy head of Russia's space agency, said that the fly-around had always been a part of launches. But extra safety measures to have taken after the failure of two Proton launches last year.

Kazakhstan temporarily banned all missions after chunks of metal debris rained down on a vast swathe of land, narrowly missing houses and people.

A minor technical hitch with the last Proton launch earlier this month renewed safety fears but Kuznetsov said the problem had been identified ahead of Wednesday's launch.