Monday Dec 17th- Dublin Airport 8am local
Its the week before Christmas. I’m at the airport and lots of loving reunions of friends and families are occurring around me, people returning home for the holidays. Seasonal music, trees and fairy lights, hugs and smiles everywhere. I’m smiling for a whole other reason- I’m heading to Kazakstan!
Because Alexander Gerst is coming home. In 3 days, our ESA astronaut, and currently the commander of the ISS is returning to Earth, having completed his Horizons mission. Joining him will be his crew mates, NASA’s Serena Aunon Chancellor and Roscosmos’ Sergei Prokofiev, returning in the Soyuz MS09 descent module, the same craft that I witnessed their launch (they were atop the Soyuz rocket) on June 6th, over 6 months ago in Baikonur. And I’m going to be there to see them return.
We’re headed to Karaganda, the landing zone planned for a return to Earth at 11.03 am on Thursday December 20th. I’m flying into Frankfurt to meet the same team who I travelled with to Baikonur and joining them on the Air Astana flight to Kazakstan’s capital Astana. And then onwards to Karaganda by van. We were warned to bring our warmest clothes, temperatures could drop to as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius at night. I’ve packed most of the equipment I bought for the simulated Mars mission at Mars Desert Research Station in the high Utah desert almost 2 years ago. But this was for temperatures to minus 20C, this is a whole other level of cold. Will I be okay?
I’m getting to see my space pals again, the team that travelled with me to Baikonur last June for the launch of Expedition 56, the same crew we’re now going to see come home in just 3 days. After that extraordinary trip, we all committed to following Alex’s mission to the end. Just 3 of the original 5 have made it, but we’ve promised to share the experience from the ground as much as we can on the day.
Its another expensive trip, and as ever, I worry that I may have over-extended myself this time. Everything I’ve earned since the summer has gone towards it. But it will be worth it, its the tail end of the story, to witness a human mission from Earth of one complete crew- from the moment of launch to the moment of return. I have not yet tuned into Christmas – too much prep. No cards, no tree, no gifts bought….pah! I’ll worry about it when I return, I say to myself.
Once I get through the lengthy security check queue, everything goes really smoothly. We take off for Frankfurt on time and the adventure begins. Looking out the window at Dublin below, I think back to that wonderful Baikonur trip, seeing the team again and the launch. The launch..
Baikonur Cosmodrome,. June 6th
800m from Launchpad 1- 10 minutes to launch :
There’s a countdown clock about 20m in front of us. We have secured a wonderful view of the rocket, and have a whole section to ourselves. The screen with the countdown clock occasionally streams the live feed from the Soyuz and we can see Alex, Serena & Sergei in the module. People are chatting away, keeping one eye on the rocket at all times. Its a very warm day, I have to wear my hat again, my arms are already burnt from this morning when we were at the Cosmonauts hotel waving Alex and the crew on to the bus headed to Building 154 to suit up in their Sokol spacesuit and make final checks before launch.
Outside Building 154: 2 hours to launch
Our Roscosmos guide waves his pass and we are allowed through to a cordoned off area outside the building, where friends and family and space officials only have access. I have a wonderful viewpoint, right in the front row, behind the official rope. Security is managing the crowd very well, and we are all kept in our place. We wait a long time, standing there in the hot sun, but I’m not prepared to give up my good spot. Its worth it when after about an hour, Alex, Serena and Sergei emerge, in Sokol suits, its an image I’ve seen many times online, but now its happening in front of me, a mere 3m away.
It doesn’t seem real somehow. Directly across from me are Alex’s family, and I realise that as Alex walks past us, that this is their last moment together, and that its in public. And I think about how hard that must be, for both family and crew. I look at Alex’s parents- they are smiling thinly, their fear is disguised but the eyes reveal a little more. I think about that moment and what it must be like for them, what they must be thinking. And kind of processing it all when suddenly people are roaring and my clear view is immediately obscured by the press and others. I’m expecting the security to order them back, behind the rope but its not happening. I realise suddenly that I’m in a sort of post-GAA match moment, when crowds are unofficially thronging the pitch, to personally thank the team for their wonderful victory.
As soon as the crew approach the bus, everyone pushes even more forward and by the time that the bus doors close, I’m one of the few people left standing in my original place. I rush forward to wave them off and catch Alex, staring down at his family, his hands in white gloves touching the glass.
I try to find his family in the crowd but cant, so I look back at Alex. He keeps his eyes fixed on them. Even among all these people, its an intimate moment and I’m ashamed that I didn’t look away.
The bus pulls out, headed to Launchpad 1, people running behind it, all the way to the gates, until it turns the corner and it’s gone. His family are left, still standing together and hugging each other as everyone else scarpers away back to their vehicles. I want to go over to them, to wish them well, but who am I to them? I’m too shy to approach. I hear Andreas call, ‘Niamh, come! We have to go! Come Come now!. I look back – only the families and a few officials are left in this open space. I run to catch up with the group. And we are rushing across the Steppe again in our van with magnificently bad suspension, headed towards our viewing area. Its getting very exciting indeed.
T minus 10 to launch:
My camera is all set up on the tripod, everything is ready to go. I also have my phone fully charged to take pictures. Andreas is also taking footage for all of us and has a GoPro mounted to the top of his camera. The amount of camera equipment in this field is extraordinary. There’s a real buzz now, with just 3 minutes to go. ‘Remember this moment’, Andreas says to me quietly. ‘You will never forget your first launch at Baikonur. It’s a very special thing, especially for you.’ I nod, but not quite sure what he means.
T minus 1 to launch:
This is it. This is the moment that we’ve all been waiting for. The whole trip has been building up to this. I check my camera one last time and press record.
T Minus zero- the Launch
A Russian male voice comes over the tannoy. Its the 10 second countdown. The initial spark. The rumble. A huge explosion that overflows onto the right of the rocket. Vibrations, a wobble in the rocket, then a move upwards, slowly first, and then boom, its off. In to sky. Going faster, faster, faster. The brightness of the rockets burning, the power, the heat and light on my face, the ground rumbling, to witness such speed, to know that 3 people are at the top, three people who are tiny in comparison to this huge rocket, it overwhelms me. The moment of launch explodes into my brain. Trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. But I can’t. I glance to my camera, I’ve forgotten to move it to follow the rocket, the focus is off. I’m trying to keep taking pictures, its too much to do, there’s something a lot more interesting happening right in front of me. Sod it. I give up the camera and just watch the rocket sprint up into the air. Its all happening too fast. ‘Gotta remember all of this’, I think. But its not possible.
The sound of the rocket is exquisite, its this dripping, popping constant drum. No-one is speaking. Its calmly quiet. I quickly glance around and everyone is watching the rocket behind a device of some sort. I have an overwhelming urge to scream and whoop and dance and cheer because I’m so excited, and all the big sounds and vibrations, I want to respond to it all, do what my instinct tells me. But I know that I’d ruin everyone else’s experience if I did. ‘Go! Go ! Go!’ I whisper instead, ‘Go!’ as I raise my hands in the air and throw my shoulders back. I try to absorb it, all the while knowing that there are three people on the top of this huge machine heading further and further higher. The first stage separates, and onwards the rocket goes. They seem so small to me now. I’m trying to see them in there, what they are feeling, experiencing. I feel an overwhelming sense of pride. The achievement of it all. I’m so proud to be a human, to celebrate this moment, and then the emotion hits me.
Those first 3 minutes as I watch them climb up, up and away are magnificent. From then on we peek at the live stream from inside the Soyuz and back at the sky for the remainder of the launch. The Russian voice tells us that the seconds stage has separated. Still so very quiet around me. No-one dare celebrate without the all-clear. Then the Russian voice comes back on the tannoy, and we’re told that the launch has been a success! Video of the crew comes through, weightlessness has kicked in & they seem relaxed. Eight and a half short but very long minutes have passed and Alex, Serena and Sergei are on their way to the International Space Station.
People are cheering, hugging, comparing footage and chatting feverishly about how it all went. ‘A perfect launch’, ‘flawless’, ‘couldn’t have gone better’, I hear. Andreas shouts ‘Group photo! Everyone, come here, we need to take a group photo’. I don’t want to a group photo, I’m not ready yet. I want everything to be quiet again, the way it was just a few moments ago. I want to see it again. I start to walk away further into the Steppe, towards the launch pad and away from the crowd at the viewing area. Because I’m crying and I don’t want anyone to see me.
I have so many thoughts spinning in my head, I need some time here, in this spot, to absorb them all before I let the moment pass. Vasily catches up with me and motions for me to come back for the photo. Galina sees that I’m crying and hugs me. ‘What? You’re crying?’, barks Andreas. ‘In all my years of launches I’ve never seen that reaction before’. But he knows me, and I think he understands. Vasily edges away, my tears have made him uncomfortable. I can’t talk. I don’t want to. I want to hold on to the experience a little bit more.
We take the photo and everyone starts to head back to the van.
I walk back in to the Steppe, grab my phone and press record, and make a small video.
I gather myself together and walk back towards this wonderful group of friends. On the van back to the hotel we toast the mission with vodka, a Russian tradition seemingly. A little bit squiffy from the alcohol I stuck my head out the only window in this desperately stuffy van. It was one of those moments of total and utter contentment, that lovely calm of happiness and joy.
Baikonur hotel June 6th
The lobby is full of ESA personnel, already celebrating the launch and rightfully so. Romain is there, who I know from the Astronaut Centre, and Jules Grandsire Head of Communications and more. I’m invited to their party but I prefer to spend my last evening with my own Baikonur crew. At our favourite restaurant later on, we vow to return to Kazakstan for Alex’s landing. We think that it might be in October. Thats a busy month for me, always with Space week and preparations for Science week. But I don’t care, I’ll figure out a way of returning.
Dec 17th Frankfurt airport.
I have a few hours to wait until the Astana flight so I book in to a lounge before meeting up with everyone at the departure gate. And I finally start back on this blog series.
Andreas had been right, it was a very special moment. And Baikonur is a very special place. The crew of Expedition 56 took another 2 days to arrive at the ISS (due to a delayed launch date, the orbital calculations were affected, which meant essentially that they had to wait 2 days for the 2 space craft to align properly in orbit). I was back in Dublin before they would arrive. It was a very successful mission, but quite an extraordinary one too- two months in to the mission in August, a small hole was discovered in the habitation module of the Soyuz MS09 craft. And on Oct 11th the launch of manned Soyuz MS10 craft was aborted due to a failure in the boosters. Thankfully both crew survived the emergency landing, but all launches were suspended until a thorough investigation was conducted. And ultimately led to a delay in the return of Expedition 56 to Earth. As I sat in the airport lounge, final confirmation of the landing time of this crews confirmed. December 20th 11.13am local time, approx 40km from Karaganda in the steppe desert. Weather permitting.
At 5.30pm I headed to the gate, and there they were: Andreas, Steffen and Markus. I ran up to them, squeezed them all tightly, giggling and laughing that we were all here together again (well some of us, anyway).
‘We did it! We’re here!’, I said. ‘Yes, yes’ said Andreas. ‘But what I know from space, nothing is ever final, until it happens. So lets hope for a successful landing on Thursday, and that everything stays to plan’. We are the only team attempting this, which made me really proud of our determination. Andreas told us that his colleagues thought that we were crazy to attempt to go to the Steppe in the winter. I didn’t care. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Steppe.
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.
Off Korolev Avenue Baikonur 6.30pm
We’re at Yuri Gagarin’s monument. I like this one. Its a huge concrete sculpture. He has his arms raised upwards towards the sky. I walk around it for a bit and see, that at a certain angle, it looks like he has the setting sun between his two outstretched arms. I like this view, so take a few photos of him holding the sun, with the shadows of the group in the foreground. Its nice. I continue to wander around the monument as the tour guide lady turns another page in her folder sharing more facts with us. Yuri seems otherworldly in this pose, and I like it. I could stay here for a while. I’d prefer to be here with may be one or two other people though, taking my time to sit here and have a think. Its a nice spot for thinking.
The blue folder is full of printed pages and I can see that she’s only about a quarter way through on this walking tour of monuments. Her hair is done nicely and she’s dressed well. She’s really giving it socks, but one of the Slovenians keep interrupting and correcting her, or translating for the group from Russian to Slovenian at the same time our lovely interpreter Yana is explaining to us in English what we are looking at. Its very odd, there’s clearly some sort of bizarre power struggle going on. I feel sorry for both Yana and the tour guide lady, they’re both being very polite about the situation, and none of us seem to know what to do about it either.
We’re in a park full of monuments, celebrating the achievements of truly exceptional people, key influential people in the history of Russia’s long and incredible space story. Most of them are the usual brass sculpture busts. I’ve seen a ton of them in nearly every city and town I have ever visited. We even have a few in Dundalk. They all look the same. Whats the beef with monuments, anyway? I mean, are they really the right way to capture a life’s work? Is this monument really sharing with us the incredible stories of the people who created Baikonur? Why can’t they be remembered in a more tangible way? I want to know all about the lives of these people and the incredible things that they did. But someplace else, not here in front of a block of concrete and a brass bust- what about instead, if its over a dinner, or lying down on a beach, or on a lovely grassy field under a tree, with the sunlight casting dappled shadows through the leaves with a soft breeze blowing softly on my face, half asleep but listening intently to the lovely tour guide and imagining every detail she is telling me- about their lives, their REAL lives; how they struggled to achieve what they did, the personal sacrifices they all made to create Vostok 1 and to get Yuri in to space that day back in April 1961. About the yelps of joy when he returned safely, the looks exchanged between Sergei and Yuri that moment he emerged safely from that spacecraft, knowing together that they had created this enormous and unimaginable seismic shift in our perception of ourselves as humans.
What must it be like to change everything so completely in a moment? What does it feel like to carry that on your shoulders? I imagine the handshake Yuri and Sergei shared in that moment, or maybe even an embrace, probably holding back tears of pride, respect, love, fear, disbelief and joy, such wondrous joy. Celebrating that intimate moment surrounded by the team, still not quite realising the huge thing that together they made happen. That their lives would never be the same again. Or probably as good either. How could it? What else could you possibly achieve in life, that could exceed the day you shifted forever existential perceptions of what is and what isn’t possible?
So lovely tour guide lady, throw away that blue folder, melt all those brass busts into a beautiful art piece on that beach, or in that grassy field, and burn those pages in a fire for us all to sit around as you recount these amazing human stories. Tell me those stories, please lovely tour guide lady! Not a cold, voiceless, static brass bust of a person I never knew, do not know, nor respect nearly as much as I should. And arguing with a Slovenian academic over numbers dates, names and locations to me, is completly missing the point. Please, spare me this!
The dude interrupting the tour guide lady is Voike, and seemingly a well respected and very knowledgeable scholar on Russian space history. Andreas tells me that his comments to the tour guide lady are legitimate and that she’s getting the monuments mixed up. I’m not surprised, they all look the same to me too. Its great that he knows so much, but I can see that the lovely tour guide lady is getting flustered.
I see her shoes. They’re white. She’s done her toenails in a lovely pink colour. This job is important to her. You can see that she takes a great deal of pride in being a tour guide. I think about her earlier in the evening, getting ready to come to work, to be our guide for the night. I see her at her kitchen table, in her home. I imagine that its a simple home, that this job is a good one, and that the fee is good compared to other jobs available to her in Baikonur. Her role as tour guide is important to her. Even her blue folder tells me that. I wonder what she thinks of us too. I try a few times to catch her eye and smile at her but she doesn’t see me. She’s working, and doing her very best in disseminating this information that she has in her blue folder. So when Voike corrects her, I can only imagine the humiliation she is feeling right now. I can’t watch, because I want to jump in to the middle of the disagreement and fix it for her. But I can’t, because this is my first day with these people and I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Its all probably down to a simple difference in cultures, different methods of communication, different values. So I’ve decided to disengage and instead watch the pages turn in the tour guide lady’s blue folder. It looks like she has about 10 pages left, and she’s done about eight already. So that means that there’s another hour at least of this excruciating experience to endure.
Some local kids come running over, some are on bikes and they circle us in amusement. They sit around beside us. One of them has a bubble wand, haven’t seen one in years. I love them, and he has one that can make the really huge bubbles. How cool would it be to make enormous bubbles at Yuri’s monument? I’m dying to play with it with him. He runs around us initially, then slows his pace, until he is walking behind his, unsure if he can join in. He sees me smiling, I beckon him to join us. He seems particularly interested in us and slowly approaches. The other kids slowly peel away and move on to the next distraction, but he doesn’t. He looks at everyone individually, and when he gets to me I smile at him again. He listens to the tour guide intently for a bit as Yana and Voike continue to vie for our attention, and then stands beside some of men in the group, peering up at them. He then looks back to me, sitting at the base of the monument and comes over.
I get up to talk to him. He asks me something. In Russian, I think. I tell him ‘Ireland. I’m from Ireland’. ‘Nah’, he mutters and he shakes his head quietly. I get my camera out, thinking that maybe he wants me to take a picture of him, which I do. But that’s still not it. He moves off and goes to stand beside the Slovenians to the right of me. I sit back down at the base of the monument. He comes back and sits beside me, which is nice. I point to his bubble wand, and he looks up at me. ‘Bubble?’, I ask. And he shakes his head while showing me his bubble wand. I want him to give it to me so I can blow some bubbles but he doesn’t.
Stefan comes over and speaks with the boy. Turns out that Stefan knows a little Russian from when he lived in East Germany before the wall came down. He tells me that the boy is incredibly proud that people have come to his city from all over Europe. He doesn’t seem to know much about the launch. I smile back at him. He asks Stefan a question as he looks at me. Stefan says ‘Irlandyia’. And I smile back at him and say ‘Da, Irlandyia’. He laughs. We all laugh. Vasily has come over now wondering whats going on and sits beside me on the other side. Andreas takes a picture of us all together.
His name is Sascha. He looks about 10, maybe 11 years old. He’s a lovely young man and is making his parents very proud with the manner in which he is conducting himself in our company. We’ve all fallen in love with him a little. We continue to have a non-conversation together for another 10 minutes- Stefan, Vasily and myself. I continue to point at his bubble wand, saying ‘Bubble’ to him. He never pursues it, kind of ignoring it every time I say it. Vasily jokes that bubble could be like a really offensive work in Russian, and finds this completely amusing for the remainder of the evening. As do I.
Its time to move on to the next monument. And Sascha decides to join us. As we walk onwards, he runs on ahead, walking with Andreas, and then with some of the Slovenian men, then back to us, then to Stefan. He stays with Stefan mostly. I like that he’s with us.
Next up: the Soyuz Rocket replica.
And its incredible. I mean its huge and bright and the boosters are this beautiful bright red. We all take pictures of ourselves under the boosters, taking turns-first the Slovenians. The blonde Slovenian girl in our group snips at me to get out of shot as I’m trying to take a better shot for one of her colleagues. So I step out of the way and feel a little silly. We all haven’t gelled yet as one big group, and I’m hoping that tomorrow or maybe the next day, I’ll get to know them better. Sascha joins in too, running under the big red boosters. I manage to grab a few sneaky pictures of him. Then its a group picture of the Slovenians with their national flag, then our group Vasily, Stefan and Steffen take their turn. I try to take good pictures for them. And then its time to move on to the next monument.
Andreas tells me to hang back, he’s a great idea that we should take some pictures here with me jumping in the air. I love it and throw myself into the task wholeheartedly. And its so much fun jumping in the air. I’m laughing and loving the notion that I’m in front of this rocket that could one day finally get me up to space. Vasily hangs back and he decides to click away too, both generously grabbing this exquisite moment for me. Its wonderful. And while I’m distracted with all this, somewhere between the Soyuz rocket and the next monument Sascha decides to leave us. He probably ran back to the Yuri monument to re-join his friends.
Because we’ve only had lunch today, Galina is asking us if we want to go to dinner. But lunch had been only about two hours previously, so none of us are interested. ‘I’d love to grab some chocolate or something, in case I get hungry later tonight though’, I say. So we all go to the shop across the street. A tiny shop. The two shopkeepers stand to attention the moment we enter. They’re not used to this many people coming in at once, I imagine. I’m embarrassed that there are so many of us. I’m embarrassed that I cant speak Russian, because we’re all speaking English so loudly. There’s not much stock in the shop. Very little choice. I wonder how I would survive here, what kind of job I could get, what my salary might be. There’s a big housing shortage in Baikonur so it’s probably expensive to live here.
A lot of spirits, lots of vodka for sale in the shop. They also sell beer from a keg from a makeshift bar area, and someone has come in with a 2l plastic bottle which is being filled with beer. The chocolate is displayed in a glass case. Andreas recommends a genuine Russian chocolate bar to buy. It has a lovely cream wrapper with a Babushka doll design on it. The aisle between the 2 sides of the shop is so narrow it’s difficult to turn around to see it, because there are so many of us here. Vasily wants one too, so I get 2 bars. I pay the lady.
There are no cash registers, it’s a simple cash exchange. I see the bubble wands are for sale here too. I want to buy one for Sascha and see that they’re 40 roubles, but I don’t want to buy it in the company of the group. So instead, I decide that I’m going to give my 50 roubles in change (which is worth about 70 cents) to Sascha. Only problem is, I don’t know where he is.
Vasily and I have already become best buddies. Turns out he talk about other things besides concrete, which is a relief. He’s funny too. Likes being silly, the way I like being silly. But I think we’ve bonded because we both saw something in Sascha. Maybe not. He says that he want to help him, but its hard to know when Vasily is joking and when he’s serious. He might be mocking me. Even though he’s making me laugh, I don’t know him well enough yet to know the difference. I tell him that I want to buy Sascha chocolate from the shop and he encourages me to go back to the Yuri monument to find him. He promises to get the tour bus to wait for me until I return. So I run back towards the Yuri monument, but get terribly lost. I cant remember where it was. I’m walking up & down for a few minutes, the group are completely out of sight now. A group of teen boys sitting on a wall, notice me and start to talk together. I probably look completely out of place and remember that scene in ‘Trainspotting’ when the American tourist enters a dodgy pub during Edinburgh fringe and Rent Boy (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) mug him, and they say that he was asking for it. And I think that this is me right now. The teens get up from the wall and are walking towards me. I worry that I’m not being vigilant enough, and then I worry that I’m being prejudiced. But in the end, I decide to head back to the group.
‘Did you find him?’, Vasily asks. ‘No’, I say. ‘There’s still time, go back!’, he says. ‘I thought that you wanted to buy him chocolate’. ‘I do’, I say, ‘but he’s gone’. We get back in the tour bus for another hour of monuments.
In our white, knackered minibus drive back to the hotel, with our crazy but affable Kazak driver, Vasily teases me that I didn’t try hard enough to find Sascha. And I laugh. And he jokes about ‘bubble, bubble’. And I laugh. We get back to our lovely hotel ‘Sputnik’. We sit outside on the steps as Andreas smokes away. We were planning on a beer before bed, or as I’m told by Steffen and Stefan an ‘Absacke’, but the chats are so good outside on the steps, we cant be bothered heading to the bar. By 9.30pm I cannot keep my eyes open. The 2 days of non-stop travel to Baikonur have finally caught up with me. We’ve a very early start in the morning to view the real Soyuz rocket that takes Alex, Serena & Sergei to the ISS. It is rolling out from the Energia site 112 at 7am, being seen for the very first time. It’s a big tradition in Baikonur for the Soyuz rockets to be rolled out this way, making a 2hr journey to the Gagarin launchpad. We make a plan to be at reception for 6.20am. I excuse myself from my new family, shower, and fall into my beautiful, huge bed. I’m gone in 15 minutes.
I lie in bed and think about Sascha, and feel bad that I didn’t try hard enough to find him. And anyway, what difference would my stupid 50 roubles have made to his life? Vasily & I continued to speak about him throughout the whole trip. He said that he would really like to help him and I said that I would like to too. We even joked about adopting him.
At the end of the evening after we’d visited every monument in the city, the lovely tour guide lady got out of the bus in a suburban part of the city. It must have been close to where she lives. I shouted ‘Spaceba’, as she got out, but I’m not sure she heard us. Or maybe she didn’t want to hear it. She didnt say goodbye and no-one made a big fuss for her as she disembarked. The bus just stopped and she quietly got off. I imagine that when she went back home, and took her white shoes off that she told her family about the awful evening she had had. And the man who kept correcting her. I thought she was a great tour guide. I may hate monuments, but she did a great job. With her blue folder, and pink toenails. And white shoes.
I never went back to find Sascha. I never saw him again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Photos credit: WP)
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.
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!