Five Days At The Russian Cosmodrome Baikonur For A Manned Space Launch Day Five. Today was the day. The climax. The denouement. We started off with a leisurely tour of the Museum of History in the town of Baikonur.
We were expecting to see our guide, Amina, from the day before, but she was nowhere to be found. We speculated that we exhausted her from our barrage of questions from the previous day. Subbing in, was our guide, Misha, from the two days prior. Misha gallantly took us through the museum noting the highlights of the Soviet/Russian space program. Our group of space geeks immediately broke into an abrupt laughter when Misha yanked a stuffed dog (playing the role of the first dog in space) out of a miniature capsule. He stared back like a deer in headlights, totally perplexed at our reaction. I imagine he is still confused today.
Photos provided courtesy of Prof. Thomas J. Brady
There is also a small gift shop (really just someone’s office) where I picked up some very cool and cheap MS-08 magnets.
Next was the Central Market, a lively but small Central Asian market. The added benefit of this market was a number of Baikonur souvenir opportunities. During our trip, there were three souvenir buying opportunities. The museum within the Cosmodrome, where I bought an expensive ($100 plus) jacket with cool mission patches, the museum within the town of Baikonur, where I purchased some cheap magnets, and finally the Central Market, where I picked up a Baikonur hat on the cheaper for a couple of dollars.
I left the group and headed to lunch. Now, I was going off the agenda. I had met a family who owned a market next to my hotel the day before. When entering, I noted the store’s sign in Cyrillic, but also saw Armenian text, which I found surprising in the middle of Baikonur. I had entered the store in a tizzy, searching for any Armenians that might be inside. And then I met the owners. They happened to be from Armenia and I happen to trace my roots to Armenia. After sharing smiles and greetings in Armenian at their store, they invited me to their home for lunch.
A traditional table had been set with many dishes from Armenia, including dolma (stuffed peppers), my favorite. In addition, to the Armenian couple, they invited another couple, their good friends, who hailed from Uzbekistan. As traditional required, a number of vodka toasts took place, honoring the homeland, family, and new friends. I left lunch, having made some new friends and feeling a bit lightheaded from the vodka.
After a brief rest, the group reconvened. It was time. Next to the Sputnik Hotel (where some of the tourists from my group were staying) was the Cosmonaut’s Hotel. Two weeks prior to launch, the cosmonauts and astronauts arrive to Baikonur and stay at this hotel for final preparation.
A couple of hundred tourists, spectators, media and astronaut’s family had gathered in front of the Cosmonaut’s Hotel. Two buses, one adorned in stars and planet, stood await. Applause erupted. And some yelling. The three astronauts and their two backups appeared, exiting the hotel. Russian Orthodox priests blessed the men. The two American and one Russian astronauts were dressed in handsome blue jumpsuits. Mission patches and Russian and American flags decorated their uniforms. I reflected a bit of dichotomy of the Russians and Americans cooperating so closely on their space endeavors while overall the countries’ relationships were under severe duress.
The astronauts stood in front of the purplish bus, waving and smiling. The crowd erupted again. I felt a chill, imagining the signifigence of this moment. Within hours, these three men would be leaving the earth’s atmosphere and hurdle into the unknown, where so few have ever been. They looked like rock stars, basking in the brief adulation, all cool with smiles and insouciance. Within moments, they buses left with their precious cargo.
Next to the hotel is Cosmonaut’s Alley. A path in this wooded area is surrounded by trees planted by the men and women who have ventured into space from Baikonur. The first tree in the path, of course, was planted by Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
At the end of the path were two saplings, planted by the US astronauts, Arnold and Feustel. While both have been in space previously, this is their first time launching from Baikonur. Artemyev’s tree had been planted previously since this was not his first flight from Baikonur. A nameplate in Russian notes each astronaut’s sapling.
We exited the town of Baikonur and we headed to the Cosmodrome. We had one more opportunity to see the astronauts before their launch. The astronauts inside the Cosmodrome were to be suited up in their spacesuits. Our group with the other couple hundred spectators gathered outside the building on some rafters.
Dusk had already arrived and the three astronauts appeared. Once again, the onlookers cheered. The astronauts waved and smiled. Scores of phones were lifted, grasping to take a photo.
Moments later, the astronauts entered the bus again, and stood by the windows, peering outwards. The crowds thronged around the bus. Hands reached to the window. A boy was hoisted on his father’s shoulders, his hand placed on the bus’s window. The Russian cosmonaut slid his hand over to give the boy a high five. I felt the same chill again. This was a momentous occasion and these three men were soon to be strapped on a rocket. The bus pulled away.
The rocket launch was scheduled at 11:44 pm, meaning we had a couple of hours before the launch. All groups headed back the museum within the Cosmodrome. People roamed the exhibitions while others gathered in the small café sipping a cold beer or whiskey. Others just relaxed. Everyone was in a good mood.
It was now time for the launch of MS-08. A score of buses and other vehicles had found refuge in a field. We were located approximately two kilometers from Gagarin’s Start. Stars twinkled in the dark sky. There wasn’t much light pollution in these vast steppes. I ambled over to a road that served as the barrier, patrolled by security guards. I set up my tripod and camera. Gagarin’s Start was lit up, the Soyuz rocket and capsule with surrounding gantry was visible. Snapping photos occasionally, I anxiously waited for 11:44 pm.
The gantry system was eventually retracted. Despite knowing the launch time, the rumbling surprised me. Gagarin’s Start lit up. Smoke erupted from the rocket. In my head, I verbally stated the countdown. And, then like that, MS-08 was launched in the air. The white flame extended from the rocket and smoke filled the launch pad. Over 930,000 pounds of thrust lifted the Soyuz into the sky. I stood in silence and visually traced the rocket as into disappeared into the abyss.
I retuned the bus and our guide Ksenia popped open the champagne. Check out Star City Tours/Vegitel for their tour options. A successful launch of three men into outer space. A true, bucket-list experience.
Disclosure: Start City Tours/Vegitel provided me with a discount.
Five Days At The Russian Cosmodrome Baikonur For A Manned Space Launch Day Five.