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Back for the Landing

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.

Whiskey for the Steppe

I buy a baby of whiskey for everyone, to celebrate the landing (Credit N Shaw 2018)

 

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. 

Ryanair flight Dec 17th

 

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.

The crew head to launch June 6th 2018

The crew head to launch (Credit N Shaw 2018)

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.

Alex saying goodbye to his family

Alexander’s last seconds with his family (Credit: N Shaw 2018)

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. 

Launch time

Soyuz MS09 on Launchpad 1 Jun 6th 2018 (Credit: N Shaw 2018)

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.

Soyuz MS09 launch footage (N Shaw)

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.

group-pic-launch-day (Credit Space Affairs 2018)

Group Picture post Soyuz MS09 launch June 6th 2018 (Credit Space Affairs 2018)

I walk back in to the Steppe, grab my phone and press record, and make a small video.

View what Niamh recorded

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).

Reunited

Team Soyu MS09 reunited again (Credit: N Shaw 2018)

‘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.

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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.

astana-plane-interior

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.

map-of-the-countries

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.

niamh-on-astana-airport

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.

kryzlorda-bus

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-plane

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)