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Baikonur ‘Road to The Stars’, Niamh’s story. Day 1

Day 1- Kazakstan- Terra Firma, but not yet Baikonur 

On board flight Frankfurt- Astana 5.20am local
I get poked in the arm, and awake suddenly. The lady seated beside me, points to the air stewardess standing in the aisle, who I can just about make out beneath a mounting pile of blankets she is clearly collecting. ‘Oh, sorry’, I say in a half-sleep, giving away my snuggly blanket. ‘We’re about to land’, she says and smiles.

I’m still groggy from the short sleep I managed to get on the flight and take a long stretch. My feet are swollen as I squeeze into my hiking boots while looking out the window. Below me are miles and miles of flat dry landscape. Its the Steppe desert, and I instantly recall our Geography class all those years ago with Mr Byrne telling us about the Steppe ecoregions and the special type of grasses and savannas that grow there, capable of surviving months of drought. I’m loving it. And I love that I’m actually here, now, in this remote part of the world, finally seeing it for myself. I can’t wait to land to check it all out.

I’m disturbed by another gentle poke from the lady beside me. She hasn’t spoken throughout the flight, and I had noticed earlier on that she had seemed nervous. She looks around Mam’s age, somewhere in her 70’s. She’s someone who lives in a world similar to my home town- suburban, safe, secure. I was at first keeping an eye on her, but she seemed to want to be kept alone, which if I’m honest, kind of suited me too. Whenever you strike up conversation with strangers on a flight, its kind of a risk isn’t it? I mean it could go really well and you meet the biggest love of your life, but you could also meet a ‘monologuer’- those people who never know when to shut up- think Dell Griffiths of the movie ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’. I have to admit that I’ve met the latter way more than the former, so I pop on the headphones, smile at my neighbour and we get on with the flight in an agreed silence.


The flight from Frankfurt to Astana was lovely (Credit WP, 2018)

We were given this small immigration form in the first few minutes of boarding, and she has it in her hand now. It is without doubt the smallest form that I have ever had to fill in, kind of around the size of a post-it note. The font is so tiny in the instructions part, its hard to decipher what they want us to complete. She asks me a question, pointing at the form. I think shes speaking Kazak which is surprising to me, given the way she is dressed. I look sheepishly at her and give her a ‘Sorry I don’t speak Kazak’ kind of look. I think I’ve annoyed her, and she tries to continue on her own. This might be my first ever Irish-Kazak interaction, I have to make more effort than this. So to make amends I sort of hover over her. She is looking at the form blankly and I feel obliged to help her in some way. I wrack my brains wondering what the problem is. ‘May be she might need me to transcribe for her’, I think. ‘May be she can’t write?’ I gesture the universal writing sign (you know the one, where you write in the air, kind of the same gesture you use to ask for the bill?). But she shakes her head looking at me as if I’m mad.

I turn away, looking back at the view below. She mutters something to herself, probably commenting on what an idiot I am! I half-hear it and recognise some of the words. Its german! She’s speaking german! I can help her! So I have a go with my ‘fluent’ language skills: ‘Sie sind Deutsch?’. She looks up at me relieved and pushes the form under me. I get out my glasses and see that this unbelievably tiny form is written in Kazak, Russian and English. No German anywhere. Aha! I have it! So I make an attempt to translate the different sections for her, and we make progress. I explain that she needs to write down the purpose of her visit. She says repeatedly ‘Meine schwester. Meine schwester’ – my sister. Her sister. She’s travelling to Astana to see her sister! Imagine that. Her sister at some stage in her life, emigrated to Kazakstan. I wonder to myself ‘When did her sister do that, and why? Was it years ago, and has she seen her sister since she left Germany?’ But I don’t dare ask. This woman isn’t down for chitter chatter and if I’m not careful, I could be the Dell Griffiths of this flight.

We continue with the form. We write down the address of her sister. And then we’re done. Sort of. There are one or two questions that I can’t figure out. She tuts! And that’s it. She puts the form away and returns to looking at the flight path on the screen in front of her. And I return to the window.


The flight path- Frankfurt- Astana airport

But I keep looking at her out of the corner of my eye. I’m intrigued by her. I imagine her sister again, living in Kazakstan and their reunion at the airport. And I admire her. A lot. Here’s a woman, who seems similar in age to Mam, who probably lives in a suburban part of Germany and now she has travelled on her own, all the way to Kazakstan to see her sister. I smile at her. ‘Go you!’, I say to myself, ‘I hope that I’m as brave as she is, when I get older’.

Astana Airport 5.45am
I meet up with Steffen, Stefan, Andreas and Vasily in the concourse. Weird. In the short time that we’ve been apart, something has changed between us. We’re a team now. Already. We’re all giddy, chatting away together. No more ‘concrete’ chats happening, thankfully. Now we’re noticing together this new environment, enjoying the sensory overload. ‘Look at the Kazak police uniform!’ Vasily says to me, ‘Do you think I could get them to give me one of their oversized helmets?’. I giggle back and understand exactly what he means.

Our tiny forms get stamped at passport control by another uniformed policeman in the large helmet. We’re told to keep them safe. And now we’re officially in Kazakstan! Andreas shepherds us all towards the very small Bureau de Change. We’re wandering around drinking it all in- the buildings, the people, the shops around us. Vasily is already snapping away on his camera. I exchange my €200 into €150 in Russian roubles and €50 in to Kazak Tenge. I hope that its enough.


Walking to Terminal 2 at Astana Airport (Credit: WP, 2018)

Astana airport 6.15am
We walk outside the airport to access Terminal 2. It’s freezing outside, similar to a spring morning back home. ‘Maybe the temperatures are not going to be in their 30’s after all’, Steffen says. ‘God I hope not’, I say. ‘I have no warm clothes with me’. I worry that after all those failed attempts to pack the night before that I’ve brought all the wrong clothes. I have brought light, summer clothes, as instructed by Andreas. Not even a heavy sweater. I wonder if I’ll be able to buy clothes in Baikonur. And then I worry about money again for an instant.

The level of voices increase as we descend the stairs to the boarding gate. And suddenly it feels like we’re back in Europe. Everyone here looks familiar, lots of English and German being spoken around me, the occasional big yelp of laughter bursts above the excited voices around me. We’re all boarding the third and final flight to Kryzlorda airport. One step closer to our final destination of Baikonur. And it strikes me that all of us are here for the launch. There’s a kinship between us all. This guy called Peter approaches me, he knows me from twitter. I don’t know him but appreciate that he’s reached out to me. And we exchange a few sentences together.

‘Everyone is here’ Andreas says. People all seem to know each other, lots of hand shakes and hugs. He disappears across the hall, and I follow him with my eyes. Then I see Galina! The same guide that I had on the Zero G flight. I wave over at her but she cant see me. She’s surrounded by a big group of people. ‘Those are probably the Slovenians’ who are joining us on the trip’, I think. Galina is lovely. We got on so well in Star City last year and she was the very first person I met in Russia. She met me off the plane. I remember being very nervous entering Russia, especially going through passport control. And I wasn’t sure how safe it would be to travel solo to Moscow, so it was a relief to see her. It felt like we immediately got along and I really enjoyed her company. I’m looking forward to seeing her again and spending time together in Baikonur.

Boarding Gate 7am
The gate opens and people make a hap hazard queue towards the bus to take us to our final flight of the journey. There’s familiarity in the group of us. I feel part of it already. Sort of. Or maybe its because we all share the same passion for space. So there is no pushing and shoving, people are politely making room for everyone on the bus heading out to the final flight, headed to Kryzlorda airport.


Boarding the bus to the final flight, where all the passengers were headed to Baikonur too (Credit WP 2018)

The bus to the plane is crammed, mostly men, may be 7 or 8 other women. They’re a lot different than me, I notice. A lot more outdoorsy types. A lot of them are wearing space-themed t-shirts or jackets. And warm sweaters, and I think again that I’ve brought the wrong clothes. One woman’s voice is booming over the rest of us. I meet her later in the toilets when we land at Kryzlorda airport. I know by her that she’s done this many times before, shouting across to different people, sharing jokes that make absolutely no sense to me. But everyone other that Steffen, Stefan and I, who are all standing together, find what she says hilarious. Also the lady beside me who looks totally out of place on this largely European bus. We smile over the joke that we didn’t understand. ‘Excuse me’, she asks, ‘do you mind if I ask you why you are here?’. ‘We’re all here for a rocket launch in Baikonur’, I tell her. I notice people looking at me. ‘God, I hope that I said that correctly’, I think to myself. ‘Ah’ she says, ‘I understand now. I have never seen so many foreign people in one place before. Enjoy your time in Kazakstan’. I say thank you and am about to launch into asking her about her life here when the bus doors open and we are already at the plane. I never see her again.


Boarding the last flight – Astana to Kryzlorda. We had business class seats which was nice after a very long 2 days of travel (Credit: WP, 2018)

I grab a quick picture before boarding. We had to book business class because there were no economy seats left. They’re very comfy and I’m looking forward to a bit of pampering during the short 90 mins flight.

I see Galina climbing the stairs towards the plane. I jump up from my seat, to give her a big hug as she walks by. I can tell by her reaction, that it was probably a bit too familiar, and I’m embarrassed. ‘Just sit down, you idiot’, I think to myself. ‘You’ll have plenty of time to re-connect with her over the next few days’.

The plane takes off and next time we land I’ll be just 3 hours away from Baikonur.

Almost there.

(Photos credit: WP)

starting-off- Niamh Shaw, elon musk, nasa, spacex, engineering, richard branson, communication, stem, astronaut, niamh, scientist, artist, perform, esa, polymath, broadcast, blue origin, virgin galactic, niamh shaw, space exploration, norah patten, zero g, irish astronaut, science communication, women in stem, roscosmos, female astronauts, jaxa, baikonur, irish engineering, ireland's first astronaut, multi disciplined, stem advocate, female space explorer, irelands first female astronaut, irelands first person in space, irish female activist, irish female polymath, irish female role model, irish female trailblazer, irish role models, irish space explorer, performer & communicator & space explorer, space advocate, stem communicator

Baikonur ‘Road to the Stars’- Niamh’s story- Day 0


Travelling to Baikonur

Frankfurt Airport Terminal 2 – 6.30pm. Frankfurt to Astana departing 7.40pm

This kid has completely captivated me. I think he (or maybe she) is about 14 or 15 months old. He has a gorgeous moon face with big bright smiling eyes. He looks Kazak, and he’s carelessly wobbling around the waiting area. His mother seems distracted, she’s been consistently on the phone since we got here, and seems to be travelling solo with him. He’s wandering around where I’m sitting, looking around at everyone with this big friendly grin on him. I want him to see me smiling back at him and he does. He beams back, and from then on I cant keep my eyes off him. I’m already knackered. I’ve been hanging around Frankfurt airport all day. I got an early flight from Dublin, but this little fella is giving me oodles of energy. He’s one of those kids who is fearless, walking up to everyone to say hello. He’s cracking me up. I’m keeping an eye on him too, so his Mum can have her phone chat in peace. But I should probably head back over to the group because I see that our final fifth member has arrived. I really would prefer to sit here, but I daren’t. What would my travel companions think of me? I want to make a good first impression and I’ve only just met them. 

Dublin 1am

I’m not sure if I’ve made the right decision in coming on this trip. I’ve left myself financially vulnerable, had to borrow off a friend to pull the last bit of money together to get here. Its not that I cannot afford it, I can. Just a ton of people are way overdue in payments to me. I think its an omen. Work is incredibly busy, I’m already behind on 2 big project deliverables. I could get back on track if I just stayed in Ireland this week and got stuck in to finishing them. I dont feel prepared for this trip, I havent had the time to study Baikonur enough, I have to buy ink for the printer for my boarding passes. Packing is a disaster, I was working late Friday evening and I havent backed up my cards or drives in advance. Everything is taking way longer than I had thought. I have a shower, and set the alarm to get up in 2 hours time for the Aircoach bus to the airport.

I know Andreas, we’ve been consistently skyping since the Zero G flight last August, he’s been a great support to me in realising the big dream to get to space. He seems gruff when you meet hm first, but he’s sound and I’m happy that he’s here. He’s never fully seen my playful, spontaneous side and I’ve decided to keep it under wraps for this trip as I want to reassure him that I’m a solid person, a fully fledged responsible adult. 

I’ve been in Stefan and Steffen’s company about 30 minutes now. They’re German. Earlier. we were all hanging around the check-in counter for Andreas to arrive and I could see that we all seemed to be waiting for the same person. So when Andreas turned the corner sweaty and little flustered, our group was immediately formed. Steffen is a chemist, you can tell that he is fastidious in everything he does, so this guy achieves anything that he sets his mind to. He’s told me that he’s a pilot too, that he wanted to apply to be an astronaut and wants to see the launch to make sure that Alexander does a good job. This guy is the real deal and I’m super impressed. Stefan and I have bonded over language and the way I confuse the meanings of german words. He’s worried that his english isn’t good enough, and I reassure him that I can keep up with a conversation in German ( I soon learn to regret that when a German TV company interviews me some days later!). I havent had time to ask him too much about why he’s coming to Baikonur, but I know that I’ll have lots of time in the days ahead to get to know him.  

Vasily is the last to join us. He seems flustered and I think that maybe he’s had a stressful journey in getting here. I introduce myself to him and decide its the right thing to do to stand with them all, other than return to my seat were the cute kid is. I’m not really listening but I hear the odd word. Concrete is coming up a lot, I think its something to do with Vasily’s job. So while I’m standing there, I go back to watch the kid, see what he’s up to.

Dublin Airport 5am

Its also a bank holiday weekend and the first weekend since the schools are off for the summer. Which means that most Irish families are heading off on their holidays and that there will be long queues through security and at the gate. As predicted the 4.35am Aircoach is jammers. Everything is telling me that I shouldn’t have booked this trip. Its too late now. I can afford a daily stipend of €30 a day while I’m away, so I withdraw €200 from the business account and pray that all those people will pay me by the time I get home. I head to my gate and board the flight to Frankfurt.

Frankfurt Airport 6.40pm

The cute kid has  now approached another kid, grabbed them and kissed them squarely on the cheeks. I burst into laughter, and the group stare at me. ‘Sorry’, I say ‘there is this really cute kid. He’s just grabbed another kid and kissed them. This little fella is amazing’. They smile meekly, there’s a silence. ‘You idiot!’, I say to myself. ‘Focus on the group, forget about the kid. You’re making yourself look like a vacuous woman’. So I turn my attention to the group and listen intently to the concrete conversation, nodding where appropriate, as Andreas and Vasily wax lyrical about buildings or something. ‘How did you get here?’, I ask Vasily. ‘I drove’, he replies. Then we go back to the concrete conversation. Just then the cute 15 month old approaches the group and stands beside us all, as if he’s also fascinated by this concrete conversation too. I crack up laughing again, everyone does. This little fella is super cute. Then he laughs cos we’re all laughing. And then he grabs my leg and gives me an enormous hug and I absolutely melt. He’s beaming up at me. I rub his lovely little head and his Mum runs over and gestures an apology of embarrassment. I want to tell her that its fine, that I’m happy to have him beside me, but she takes him away.

I sleep throughout the flight from Dublin to Frankfurt. I notice someone using the stow away table as a pillow, so I do the same. I got maybe 40 minutes sleep on the plane and I now have about 8 hours to kill before meeting Andreas at the check-in desk at 5.30pm and my three new travel companions. I have Scott Kelly’s book ‘Endurance’ to read. A bar advertises a European breakfast, so I go for that. But the waitress is new and keeps ignoring me when I catch her eye to come over and take my order. Eventually I get up and give the barman my order. Everything feels wrong about this trip. I’m really tired and I need to find a quiet spot somewhere to sleep and work for a bit. I’m still trying to finish a feature piece about Mars simulation missions. I find a corner in the Hilton hotel. I work for a bit. Then a man jolts me out of a deep sleep, he’s the concierge. He asks me to move on. I’m mortified that I fell asleep and try to apologise but he’s already decided that I’m an embarrassing stain in his hotel. I’m flustered and panicked and cant get out of the hotel lobby quickly enough. I move back to the main part of the airport and try to keep working. Yet again it really feels that I’ve made a mistake in  coming on this trip.

We’re boarding the flight to Astana. I’m going to be sitting on my own. Andreas wanted us all to sit together. I feel bad that we’re not. But also I’m kind of relieved. In new groups, I put tons of energy in getting to know everyone. Which is great, but for a long flight, I’m not sure if I can keep that up. Its probably easier for everyone that I’m sitting on my own. 

A flight attendant takes the baby buggy off the cute kids mother, to place in the hold of the plane during the flight. It leaves her with 2 overflowing plastic bags of blankets, bottles and other kids stuff that she needs to carry on to the plane. She scoops up the cute kid and is struggling to use her free hand to carry her bags. I offer to help, but she’s happy to do it herself. We’re all shuffling slowly towards the gate now, I beckon her to move in front of us and wave at the flight attendant that there’s a mother & baby in need of priority boarding. She smiles and nods in thanks. I smile back, wave goodbye to the cute little kid, who has already moved on to the next distraction. I hope that we are sitting somewhere close together on the flight. But I never see them again.

I get to my seat. I’m sharing the row with just one other person. I think again about my new travel companions. These are nice people. They’re already really easy to chat with. A bit serious for me, maybe. But I dont care. Because I’m finally going to see a real live rocket launch. With Alexander Gerst on the top of it as he heads to the International Space Station on June 6th. Four years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be boarding a plane to Kazakstan.

And for the first time in weeks, I know that I’m supposed to be here. That this trip is going to be great.

I breathe slowly. And exhale with a smile.

Let’s be having you, Baikonur!