Its 5.40am. Monday morning
I slept really well after all that travel, but I’m up far too soon. I dreamt that I was in training for my own mission. I cant remember all of it, I’m in a pea green walled room, its pretty bare. The desks are wooden, the chairs are metal and they make that hollow scrapy sound on the floor when you move your seat. There’s a blackboard and a bin. And that’s pretty much it. There’s venetian blinds on the long window to my left. We’re on the ground floor in this hollow room of some 5 to 6 of us. We’re studying and tinkering with engineering parts. I’ve a black folder in front of me, with schematics of engines, a ring bound black folder. I seem to know who I’m training with, but I’ve never met any of these people in real life. There’s another woman with me. She’s older than me. I’m not afraid. I’m happy. Really happy. But what I’m doing is tough. I’m enjoying the challenge of it. When I do wake up and the alarm goes off, I initially think that I’m at home in my own bed. I look around and remember where I am and that today we’re going to see the Soyuz MS-09 rocket make its way across the Cosmodrome to Launchpad #1 or Gagarin’s Start. I bounce out of the bed, ready for this awesome day ahead.
It’s quiet at breakfast. We’re still only getting to know each other. Its one of the few times of the day where I try not to take responsibility to keep the conversation moving. Especially with people I don’t know. We’re all different in the mornings, aren’t we? Its a preference thing I think, some people are morning-people, others not so much. I prefer to be quiet myself. I like to take the first hour slowly, its a great time of the day to have a good think. Be alone with yourself, your thoughts. I like it quiet. But I’m also aware that I’m happy to set aside my customary morning routine to suit our team energy. And without knowing what that is yet, its a tough call. I decide in the end to go the quiet route. I’ve plenty of time to figure it out.
Vasily, Steffen, Stefan and Andreas are all already there. I’m a little embarrassed that they may think I’m a bad timekeeper joining them last as they are all in the midst of their breakfasts. But I prefer to not have to return to my room after eating. So what I tend to do is get to breakfast later, and then use up the time that people use to get back to their rooms, as my time to finish my breakfast. Simple!
‘Morning everyone’, I say as I approach their table and drop my rucksack. I get a warm reply from everyone and head over to the buffet area. There’s weird things laid out, I cant identify a lot of them. As with all the European breakfasts, there’s lots of cheese, and meats, but there’s this other part of the buffet, where it all looks like bread of sorts, but turns out that its not. I don’t know if its the sweet section or more savoury section. I decide to avoid it this time. There’s also hot food to order. I see sausages on the menu so I ask for that. I make a coffee, and try to find bread and ketchup for my sausages that are on their way. I see pancakes, but then realise that maybe they’re not. They’re definitely cold, and the closest thing to bread that I can see, so I get 2 of them to accompany my sausages. The sausages arrive. They’re not really sausages, more like those rubbery hot dog sausages. I take a mouthful, they’re not good & put them to one side. I feel a bit silly in front of the others that I’ve ordered hot dogs for breakfast. I go back to the buffet and get myself some cereal, with lukewarm milk. I never drink milk. And if I have to, its got to be cold. Its awful. I don’t want to eat this either. But I persevere. The crew all excuse themselves one by one and head back to their rooms. And I leave my bowl of cereal to one side. I notice that I’m one of the only people left in the breakfast room. So I grab an apple, fill my flask with coffee and head downstairs to meet the others outside. Andreas is smoking at the entrance and we all join him as we wait for the Slovenians to arrive in our white minivan. That becomes our spot. Chatting together at the steps of the hotel as Andreas smokes.
It’s 7.40am on the Baikonur Cosmodrome
I’m bouncing around, in our white minivan that’s taking us to Site #112 on the Cosmodrome, where the Soyuz MS-09 will emerge from the factory at 7am. We’re running a little behind so the driver, a Kazak man, who I never got to speak to, or know his name even, throughout the whole trip, is driving like a maniac across the steppe. The Slovenians down the back are bouncing even more than we are up front, and you can hear the occasional ‘ow’ when our driver goes over a bump in the road. The shock absorbers are well gone in this vehicle, so we’ll all feeling every move in our bodies. Sometimes I think our driver is doing this on purpose. I think he gets a kick out of bouncing us around like dice in his van. At least the van is cool, the sun is only rising, there’s a gorgeous red haze in the horizon. Vasily is clicking away on his camera already, as are many of the Slovenians too. Everyone is quiet on the bus. Its nice. Andreas tells me that as they were heading in to breakfast earlier, the other guests were leaving the hotel, and all obviously heading to Site #112 too, clearly arriving a lot sooner than we will.
This same driver collected us from Kryzlorda airport in this same white van when we arrived yesterday. Already seems like a week ago. I was pretty tired by then, it was our first time meeting the Slovenians, our travelling companions on the trip.
There were no introductions, we all just jumped in and took off on the 3hr trip to Baikonur together. They seemed shy, so I didn’t reach out to them much. Besides, I was so exhausted that I slept through most of the ride. Most of us did.
I also made sure to keep my eyes shut as much as I could because our Kazak driver was meandering around the road, at speeds far in excess of what seemed safe to me. It was terrifying to watch it, and if I kept my eyes on the road, I would have been a nervous wreck. This driver is a funny character. He doesn’t say much, but he waits for us everywhere we go. Always waiting or driving. He has a classic Kazak face-shape, half Asian & Russian looking. A smile never too far from his face. His clothes are kind of mod-looking, he’s wearing one of those small knit men’s tops, something Paul Weller would wear from The Jam. A cream one. And sandals. He wears a small leather bag, slightly bigger than a purse across his body everywhere he goes. I always wonder what he keeps in the purse. Irish men aren’t really the purse types, but it suits him. Gives him a kind of style, a bit of panache. He has a wildness to him, a smile is never too far from his face. I know that this guy lives life on his own terms. We might have hired him to be our driver, but he’s going to do that in his own way. I’m kind of scared of him and curious about him in equal measure. I’d love an opportunity to chat to him, find out more about him. But I never make that happen. He’s a maverick. I know that even without talking to him. I remember thinking that there was a strong chance of us crashing on that trip from the airport to Baikonur, and that if I were to die on this road that I’d be quite happy with that. Because then at least I would know that I have died happy, while trying to fulfil my life’s goal. So this stretch of steppe desert, at the mercy of the crazy Kazak driver wouldn’t be the worst way for that to happen
And now the crazy Kazak is driving just as maniacally to get us to Site #112 in time to witness the big reveal of the rocket that will launch in 2 days and take Alexander, Serena and Sergei to the International Space Station. This time I don’t mind so much. This is the way our driver is going to get us around, so I’ve already given in to the chaos of it. I still haven’t spoken to the Slovenians yet. I’m going to try today.
The van pulls up in a makeshift car park at the site, and we all run to the railway line that is near the doors of the factory. The energy has instantly shifted from the quiet calm of the van to a sense of spectacle and the excitement that this brings. Lots of voices, and chats and laughter. Its cold out here, and without having brought any warm clothes, I’m wearing about 4 layers of t-shirts and my raincoat to insulate myself. It feels like its working. There’s already about 150 people here, and they have all gathered at the main doors of the factory. We have already missed the unveiling of the rocket, the doors have already opened, but thankfully the rocket hasn’t left the facility yet. You can already see the boosters, the big red cones at its base. Its a really beautiful sight. Some of the technical crew are walking around, casually ignoring us, setting the tone. I brought my tripod and camera with me and am checking light settings when suddenly there’s a huge hiss of steam, creaking of steel, and a thud of steel on steel. People around me start to click away. I look to my left and see that the rocket is on the move. Slowly reversing out, making its way out of the factory. Its quiet, apart from the sounds from the train and the hiss of steam. And its then that I get a good look at this beautiful monstrosity moving slowly past us all.
Its weird, I feel like the rocket in this moment is like this object of beauty, we’re all there to adore it and ogle at it, and film it, and the team of engineers and security joining the rocket are gladly accepting of the adulation too. They don’t make eye contact with anyone, just talk among themselves. Like celebrities walking on the red carpet. Some of them are wearing a navy uniform and weird headgear. The helmet looks like a motor cycle helmet but they are wider and longer than a standard helmet. And I have a vague recollection that I’ve seen these people before. And then I realise that I’ve seen this ceremony before, this rolling out of the rocket, on TV. I remember these men in their strange navy helmets. Its old footage, grainy but still colour footage. I’m wracking my head trying to remember when I saw this before, but cant. These navy-uniformed men and the other men in cream overalls know that we’re all impressed, and their nonchalance is all part of it. Part of the ceremony. They seem kind of jaded by all the attention, as they hop on and off the low trailer that is carrying the rocket all the way to the launchpad. As the rocket slowly passes us, people are moving to keep a pace with it, clicking away, not watching where they’re going.
I’m not sure what I want to photograph, I cant get the whole view of this spectacle into one frame. And no picture I’m taking is doing justice to the sense of occasion that’s taking place right now. It feels like I’m at shore, waving off the maiden voyage of the Titanic or something. You want to be a part of whats happening, but its all so enormous, its hard to grasp where you belong in it all.
We’re told that the police and security don’t like being photographed, and besides, they’re enjoying corralling us too much. We’re not allowed pass a fence, even though the photographers with the telephoto lens have already gone way beyond the fence. One of them barks at me, I don’t know what they said, but I know its that I cant go any further. I look around and the place has cleared out. I don’t see any of our team either.
The rocket is beautiful, for its engineering as much as the time and detail that has gone in to its construction. Its hard to imagine that 3 people will be strapped in to this in a few days time. In fact, I really struggle to remember this the whole time I’m at Baikonur. Its just so immense, and something that I have never seen before, I cant process that its function is to transport people into space. I keep reminding myself of this whenever I’m on my own, but once faced with the enormity of its size, its gone again.
I head back to our van and everyone is exhilarated by what we just witnessed. It was probably about 20 minutes since I had separated from the group, but feels like about 5 mins. Checking each others videos and pictures, everyone is smiling and then we’re off to the next stop along the way, to see the rocket head toward Gararin’s start. Vasily is clicking away on his camera as we approach the railway crossing and out we get for more.
7.50am Railway crossroads
We seem to be well ahead of everyone here and we have staked out a good spot for ourselves, although honestly I cant decide where I want to go. In the far distance we can see Site #112 and the railway line to where we are. There’s an Orthodox priest standing on the road across the tracks. Directly behind him is a straight track all the way to the launchpad. Andreas says that he’s here to bless the rocket. I cant decide whether to stand where the priest is, or return to our main group.
The police are here again, with their bored faces, happy to corral us as they had only an hour previously at Site #112. I have to say that I really like their uniform, which is kind of like a navy set of army fatigues. I look at them, especially the trousers and think that I’d love to own a pair of them. They’re quite high fashion, especially if you wore them with heels. They have set up a barrier around the railway line that we cannot cross and they are walking up and down the other side of the barrier, with their dogs, who look equally bored. We are waiting here a long time, waiting to catch a glimpse of the rocket on the railway line. Its a nice time, I decide to stick with the main group. I’m standing with Vasily, and Steffen and Galina and Andreas are nearby. Taking pictures of each other, of dogs, of the police, selfies, group photos, chatting, comparing cameras, getting to know each other better, so time ambles along quickly enough. And its getting warmer too, so I can start to take some of my layers of clothes off too. Slowly more and more people start to join us.
Andreas tells us that we have the best spot, and I soon realise that he’s right. Bus loads of people start to arrive, one of them the VIP bus with ESA, NASA and Roscosmos officials, former astronauts and friends and family of Alex, Serena and Sergei. Someone taps me on the shoulder- its Antonio Fortunato from ESA. We had met while I was at the Astronaut Centre the year before. I also had arranged for him to come to Cork last year to give a lecture on Mission control as part of the Space Studies Programme. I had forgotten that he had already told me he would see me in Baikonur. He’s always smiling, but also always very professional. Our relationship has always been work-related so I’m not sure how much I can ask him here- I want to meet all the astronauts that he’s accompanying and ask him loads of questions about the crew, and where they’re going next. But I don’t want to put him in an awkward position, so I let him lead the conversation. He tells me to keep an eye on the green part of the rocket and to tell him what I see on launch day. I tell him that I will. We get a picture together and then he returns to the VIP group of ESA astronauts.
By now, the rocket is quite close. The area is very busy and there are a lot more people here than there were at Site #112, probably about 200-300 people I would say. We do indeed have a great view from where we are. There’s probably about 2-3 rows of people behind us. We’re all back clicking away again, trying to take that one shot of the rocket. I’m changing between 2 lens, one is a macro lens, that’s great for long-distance shots, but the clarity of the lens isn’t as good as my wide-angle lens. I decide that my wide-angle lens is better.
Now the rocket is almost upon us. The back-up crew for the current mission get out of the VIP bus and the police allow them to cross the barrier. Anne McClain of NASA, Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency are just a little bit up from us, posing for pictures, and being interviewed by TV channels.
David is particularly popular it seems. If we were another 5 metres closer to the railroad crossing, I could get a picture with Anne McClain, but its not going to happen. I have pictures of them from where I am, but if I were closer, I might even be able to chat to her too. We’ve made our choice now of where to stand and if I move now, I’ll lose the great spot that I have. There’s a whole reunion of astronauts happening behind me too, especially with all the cosmonauts. Three German former astronauts are here too and Stefan and Steffen are so excited to see them here and to be so close to them too. Stefan manages to get a picture with one of them and is proudly sharing it with us all. Its a great moment for him and I wish that Sam Cristoforetti, or Paolo Nespoli or Tim Peake were here so I could have moment like he has just had. Or Valentina Tereshkova even. Valentina always takes me back to Yuri. And I think again about Yuri and Valentina, and the vast expanse of the Cosmodrome and all that has been achieved here.
The rocket is finally upon us and as the Soyus MS-09 passes by, Anne, Oleg and David salute it. We get another chance to view this wonderful piece of engineering one last time before it arrives at the launch pad. Clicking away again as it makes its journey. Once it passes the railroad crossing, everyone jumps back in their vans and buses and we’re off to the last part of the rollout tradition.
10am At Gagarins Start
I’m beaming ear to ear now, feeling very much the spirit of the day and the occasion of celebrating the arrival of this rocket to such an historic place. Launchpad #1 is where the very first artificial satellite was launched, the Sputnik. Its also where Yuri launched in to space for the very first time. On April 12th 1961 on the Vostok 1. And also where Valentina launched from too, two years later on June 16th 1963 aboard the Vostok 6. So many shape-shifting moments in space exploration. All from this site. And now I’m here, standing on this very launchpad, watching Alex’s rockets being hoisted into to place for his mission launch in 2 days time. It’s a fabulous feeling and again I don’t know what I want to film, or photograph. It feels like I cant possibly capture it that way. But like everyone else, I try.
Again, launchpad #1 is packed with the same people from earlier, the same 200-300 people and I recognise some of them from the airport. And just like at the railway crossing, we are all interspersed with astronauts and dignitaries, all here to witness the Soyuz being hoisted into position, where it will remain until Alex, Serena and Sergei arrive on Wednesday afternoon.
It takes almost 7 minutes for the Soyuz MS-09 to be erected. I film it, and half-way through know that its just too long for anyone to want to bother to watch it again. But I continue filming it anyway, because that’s what everyone else is doing. I’m separated from the group again but it feels now that we all know each other, and we’re all helping each other get a good view. I’m eavesdropping on loads of conversations around me. Someone very senior from NASA is behind me, he’s with friends it seems. They’re taking pictures together, but I hear him ask a few times not to post them publicly and they reassure him that they wont. I want to turn around to see who it is, but then he will know that I’ve been eavesdropping, so I keep my head forward & imagine these people instead.
I eventually head back to the group and we are brought behind the launchpad to a special monument to the Sputnik. There’s a little boy there in a NASA space suit. I don’t like the kid, he’s precocious. I’m not sure whether he loves space or whether his parents thought that it would be cute and eye -catching to put him in the suit. He’s about aged 6. I see him again at launch day. We never connect. And neither of us care.
I get another tap on the shoulder as I leave the monument and this time its Romain from ESA. Its so lovely to see him, but I can see that he’s chaperoning Alex’s family at the launchpad. We say a quick ‘hi’ and keep moving. I see him around the launchpad for the rest of the time that we’re there, so I nab a few photographs of him, that he will have at the launchpad for himself. Andreas pulls me over to a German news TV crew who want to interview people about the launch. They were initially looking for Stefan but when they couldn’t find him, I was their back-up plan. But just as we’re about to get miked up, we find Stefan and he is interviewed instead. I get some great photos of him in front of the cameras, photos that I know he will love to share with his family when he goes home. I also take some footage of the interview too. He’s doing a great job.
Its seems that the German TV news people still want to interview me, so being the the friendly person that I am, and very comfortable in front of camera I agree. The lady interviewer is very nice, we’ve spoken a few times together already at the launch pad. She’s going through whats going to happen, when it dawns on me that the interview is going to be in German. ‘Are we doing this interview in German?’, I ask her. The cameraman gives me a weird stare. ‘Of course’, he says. ‘Oh, I have a little bit of German, I’m not flu-‘. Before I can explain, she’s asking me about the launch, and I’m babbling in my really broken bad German. ‘ Ich bin aus Irland’, I hear myself say. And after that I’m speaking more or less complete garbage, asking at one stage ‘whats the word for ‘launch?’ in German,’ mid-interview. They ask me about 3 or 4 questions, I see Vasily clicking away on his camera and Stefan too. I keep smiling, thinking this this will somehow help me be better understood. And then its done. Neither of them say anything. I can feel them thinking ‘Well that was a big fat waste of time’. I’m really embarrassed, but there’s not much that I can do or say. They just take the lapel mic off my top, and say thanks. And I get out of there!
Its almost too much to process the morning. You get swept up in the ceremony of it, and it can be difficult to process what you are a part of. What you are witnessing. That this is the rocket that will soon have 3 people in it. That this rocket is a mode of transport. That the design and engineering of the Soyuz has emerged from a rich legacy of over 50 years of Russia’s best engineers and scientists. And that I’m going to see it launch in a matter of days. My brain is simply incapable of taking all that in, so I’m coasting along on the the spectacle of it all, and want to think about later, at a quieter time. If one comes.
We all leave the launchpad reluctantly. Galina has a terrible job trying to keep us all together. I want to take more pictures of me and my Stargazer Lottie doll in front of the rocket. Some of us want to investigate other parts of the launchpad. Finally she gets us together and we go back in the minivan. I meet Romain again in our hotel lobby later, and we get a photo together. He offers to spend more time with me later but I don’t want to disturb him while he’s working. I introduce him to Vasily who is nearby and we ask him how Alex is feeling in the Cosmonaut Hotel nearby. Romain tells us that Alex is relaxed and looking forward to the launch and for his mission to begin. Then we’re head over to the Baikonur Hotel for lunch.
We had lunch here yesterday too. Its an outdoor venue, in a big yurt and really pretty on the inside, draped in burgundy and red across the ceiling down to the floor. We’re always seated at the very end of the tent, the air conditioning never works, and the Slovenians sit to the left while my main group always sit to the right.
Already we have our ways. I sit beside Vasily, and we have a conversation about concrete and what he does with concrete. which is actually very interesting. And we talk about the launch. And his obsession with rockets.
And then we’re off in the minivan again. This time to see the Proton launchpad located across the whole of the cosmodrome and at least one hour away. And its still only 2pm. Its hot now, the minivan is roasting. Only those sitting close to the one window are able to enjoy the trip. Yuric, one of the Slovenians has grabbed a spot up front. He walloped his head so hard this morning, he’s not prepared to risk sitting down the back any more. I’m not sure where to sit now, so I end up beside Tomas. We go over another huge bump and there’s another ‘Ow!’ from the back. I swear I thought I saw the Kazak driver smile.