Sunday, December 23, 2012

Launch Day - Soyuz Mission 34

Dave Hadfield gives us a personal insight into the last moments before his brother launches aboard Soyuz rocket to the ISS

Launch Day                                                                                                ©DaveHadfield 2012

Most significant events involving travel seem to happen at ungodly hours. More often than not they mean almost no sleep, a horrible wake-up call, and a stumbling emergence into inky hostile  blackness. This one is perfect. The Rocket's engines are scheduled to ignite at 18:12. We'd gladly show up anytime day or night, but small mercies are gratefully accepted.

For Baikonur on Dec 19 it's a balmy day, which means -20C with a 10 kt wind. Tradition states there will be a ceremony. The Kosmonauts will emerge from Quarantine (it feels strange referring to my brother as a Kosmonaut), and we will cheer them as they board the bus.

Our group meets in the lobby. A tangible excitement is in the air. This is Launch Day. No one is talking about the now-familiar cold. Launch Day has been 3 years coming. It hardly seems real. We file out of the Sputnik Hotel for the short walk to Quarantine. A buzz of chatter spreads.

Two coach-buses are waiting at Quarantine. We are early. Uniformed security staff, not unfriendly but quite professional, direct us to wait beside them. Then Chris' wife Helene and the Canadian Space Agency staff unveil a surprise: fake moustaches and paper space helmets. There are cries of delight. We all grab a moustache (they are mounted on short wooden dowels) and try to look like Chris. Cameras come out. We clown around. Time for a group photo!  Forty-plus goofy-looking family members and friends with cheap paraphernalia having fun on the Kazahkstan steppe. All the Russian media people rush over and take photos. Perhaps we should be more serious, but this is delicious. Anxiety turns into happy anticipation.

A pair of black-robed gentlemen walk past; Orthodox priests come to bless the crew. They take one look at us and increase their pace. Later we hear that instead of depositing a light sprinkling of Holy Water on the crew in a reverent fashion, they saturate a large long-bristled brush with the stuff and utterly douse the bowed heads -- just before they walk out into -20C! The crew is blessed. And soaked. 

Recorded music sounds loudly, and the crew emerge. They are wearing flight suits and parkas. Loud cheers! They stride past us, grinning, waving. Chris is hugely amused by the moustaches, and a bit touched. They board the bus and wave steadily as it pulls away, off to the Kosmodrome.

Next for them is the suiting-up. This is done in a dust-free room near the Launch Pad, but then the spacesuits have to be pressure-checked next door. The immediate families are waiting there behind a glass wall. I am with Helene and the 3 kids. The crew files in. Do they look nervous? Not in the least.  More waves and smiles. Chris makes a mock weightlifter pose. There is a spare Soyuz crew seat in the room. It's a very uncomfortable-looking metal bucket affair. One by one they bend themselves into it and technicians inflate the suit and check the umbilicals. The other two sit at a desk against the glass wall and talk to the families via microphones. I stand back while Chris chats, but every once in a while our eyes link up. His are very bright, as if to say,   "Look at this Dave, isn't it cool?"

Evan, Kyle and Kristin, with paraphernalia, on the observer side of the glass wall in the spacesuit-testing room
Helene, who had everything organized to a T

The suit test room. Chris is in the Soyuz seat, Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn talking to their families through the glass wall

Crew and back up crew

Roman Romanenko is Commander of the Soyuz for this launch. He speaks to his Father, Yuri, who has two "Hero of the Soviet Union" medals neatly pinned on his jacket. They gleam goldly in the bright fluorescents. This dignified gentleman set space-endurance records in the 1980s; a Father-and-Son tradition, rare and precious in this business. He smiles, but there is a hint of concern. (It is always easier for a pilot to fly a difficult machine himself than to watch a loved-one do it.) His granddaughter is sitting beside him, and he breaks the tension by donning one of our fake moustaches and helmets. The Russian film crew jostle for the best shot. She laughs gleefully.

I watch Chris. He gets into the Soyuz seat. It's tiny, and he has to hold his knees up nearly to his chest. A nylon strap-web holds them from spreading. The suit inflates. His arms pop out like the tail end of a balloon. I focus on the old round-dial pressure gauges on panel behind him. The needles don't move that I can see. The technician concurs, and Chris' arms sink down. His other connections are checked, and he is helped to his feet. He chats easily with them in Russian. I recall that Chris has a "Type-Rating" on the Soyuz, and is the only Canadian to ever fulfill a Pilot position during a launch; in this case Co-pilot (First Flight Engineer, in the Russian parlance). Chris has so many firsts...
Chris' spacesuit is pressure tested.

We say our good-byes.

Outside the building the buses wait again, plus the entire crowd of friends and family and media, about 200 people. Loud cheers accompany the crew as they board the buses that take them out to The Rocket. More frantic hand-waving, and then they're gone.

This is not Cape Canaveral. At no point is this more clearly driven home than during launch. We leave our vans and walk to a set of open stands set stark and lonely on the Kazahkstan steppe. They are simply-made out of rough concrete, with no seats or windows. As always, it's -20C but the northeast wind hardly troubles our now-acclimatized faces. I remember the crowded Causeway at The Cape, where upwards of a million people would gather. Somehow I like this better, this eastern intimacy. The Soyuz stands 2 km away. It is painted a simple army green, but that colour is rare in the dust-brown landscape, and it catches your eye and holds it. Part of the fuselage gleams white with frost from the liquid oxygen. Our viewpoint -- and existence in this time and place -- is unique. The Rocket is not large -- in fact you wonder is it really big enough? -- but all eyes are upon it. It bears the Russian trademark in spacecraft: an elegant simplicity of design.
The camera lens has shrunk it slightly, but that's more or less what it looks like. The Soyuz is a product of an elegant simplicity of design. It does not overawe with sheer size.  Note the informality of the viewing position!

A cellphone close-up. One lonely rocket in the middle of the endless Kazahkstan steppe.

Catharine, Doctor, and wife of Canadian Astronaut and VWoC volunteer Jeremy Hansen, and Helene Hadfield, Chris' wife
Our hearts go with Chris in the anxious moments before "Ignition"

The announcements over the tinny PA are in Russian. There is no countdown board. Jeremy Hansen, Canadian Astronaut, has downloaded an App on his iPhone with the feed from the Kosmodrome. He relays the times, and the pre-ignition events. The tallest support tower pulls away. The machine switches over to internal power. We stand very close, shoulders touching. I position myself immediately behind Helene, just in case.

At -:30 seconds my anxiety rises. I discover an urge to pray, which is unheard of for me. At -:10 seconds a flame suddenly erupts below The Rocket. Is it too early? Is there a problem? But the flame grows and I realize it is the normal ignition sequence.

The sun has gone down behind us and we face east into the night. This makes the flames even more dramatic. They glow with a strange redness. Later I figure out that this is the result of a kerosene-burning rocket, and that the Shuttle's bright-white exhaust came from burning hydrogen and oxygen, but for now I am struck by the brilliant burst of red and yellow. The thing lifts from the ground, a long slim tube, running free....

The sound is fierce. It resonates in your chest, makes it vibrate. The Rocket might be smaller than the Shuttle, but we're a lot closer. Screams and shouts appear on people's lips but cannot be heard. Our faces are bathed in the yellow-red glare. Robin, my wife, is capturing it on video. Not me -- I want to capture every nuance and lock it in my brain cells forever.

The acceleration appears more gradual than the Shuttle, which always seemed to get hurled off the earth in an act of unrestrained violence. This Rocket lacks that brutal quality. From my point of view it seems smoother -- I make a note to ask Chris about it later. Steadily it climbs. It arcs over to the east of us into the darkening sky. Suddenly the exhaust plume turns white. What's that? Is there a problem? It takes a second to understand that it has climbed up into the sunlight, and the exhaust is now brightly lit by yesterday's sun. ("Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth.") The visibility is magnificent. We can see the first stage shutdown and separate, and then the shine of the second stage thrusting strongly. Up and up it goes. No Florida sky was ever this clear. We can see the exhaust plume change shape as the atmosphere thins; it becomes bell-shaped. We watch and watch.... There are cheers and shouts of joy, but my eyes stay glued to the fiery light, now getting smaller and smaller. We see the 4 bright pinpricks which are the detached boosters. Finally, the light itself vanishes.

Jeremy announces Engine Cut-Off. I breathe a huge pent-up sigh of relief. They are now safely in orbit. It is done. Ahead still lies docking with the ISS but the main event is behind. Overhead the exhaust trail, the Big Smoke, starts to dissipate in the stratospheric winds. I hug Helene and the kids; and many others; it's that kind of moment. We make our way back to the buses.

Later there is a celebration. There are interviews and phone calls as people in Canada try to link up with Baikonur's remoteness. I take Chris' guitar, the Seagull we played in Quarantine, and rupture my lungs in the bar of the Baikonur Hotel, playing the favourites he and I know so well. It's a friendly crowd. There is much singing and dancing. We give him a fine send-off. 

Hadfields gathering for a family photo under a Soyuz mounted at the Baikonur Space Museum

 The Buran, a Soviet Shuttle, which they flew once, unmanned, and then dropped the program as being expensive, fragile and complicated.

The Russians are extremely proud of their space history, and with good reason. Here, Robin stands in front a Sputnik, which started the whole endeavor, inside the Space Museum

The current Soyuz signature poster, on a wall in the Space Museum. On the left is Chris' daughter Kristin, on the right his daughter in law Katya. All major operational players for this launch are signed.

There he is, Expedition 35 Commander, in charge of the signature piece of technology for the Planet Earth.

But Chris is where he's supposed to be.  He will do his job, superbly, and then bring the experience to us. That's what he does. He's the best communicator in Canada, bar none. He will share his sense of wonder, and awe, and bring us along with him as he flies.

Godspeed, Chris, from your brother. Look after yourself.


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