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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 Day 1- The Blue folder and Sascha

Yuri Gagarin Monument

Yuri Gagarin Monument (Credit WP 2018)

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 lovely tour guide lady and our translator Yana

The lovely tour guide lady and our translator Yana (Credit: WP 2018)

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.

So many monuments

So many monuments (Credit WP 2018)

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 group listen to the tour guide lady, but one of our crew is a specialist in Russian Space history (Credit WP)

The group listen to the tour guide lady, but one of our crew is a specialist in Russian Space history (Credit WP 2018)

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.

Sascha at the Yuri Gagarin Monument (Credit Niamh Shaw)

Sascha at the Yuri Gagarin Monument (Credit Niamh Shaw)

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.

Vasily, Sascha, Stefan and I at the Yuri Monument (Credit Space Affairs 2018)

Vasily, Sascha, Stefan and I at the Yuri Monument (Credit Space Affairs 2018)

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.

The Soyuz rocket (Credit WP)

The Soyuz rocket (Credit WP 2018)

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.

Weightless in front of the Soyuz Rocket (Credit Space Affairs, 2018)

Weightless in front of the Soyuz Rocket (Credit Space Affairs, 2018)

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.

The shop we visit (Credit: WP)

The shop we visit (Credit: WP 2018)

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.

The Babuska chocolate that Vasily & I buy (Credit WP)

The Babuska chocolate that Vasily & I buy (Credit WP 2018)

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.

Our minivan that we use throughout the whole trip (Credit:WP

Our minivan that we use throughout the whole trip (Credit: WP 2018)

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.

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

niamh-on-astana-airport

Travelling to Baikonur

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

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

Dublin 1am

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

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

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

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

Dublin Airport 5am

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

Frankfurt Airport 6.40pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

I breathe slowly. And exhale with a smile.

Let’s be having you, Baikonur!