Tuesday, December 18, 2012

News From the Baikonur Cosmodrome

Chris Hadfield readies for flight, supported by family

The Hadfield Family reports from the launch pad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan on the eve of Chris Hadfield's historic launch via Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station

Text by Dave Hadfield, with photos by Evan and Dave Hadfield

The Soyuz awaits Chris Hadfield. Photo: Evan Hadfield

It's breakfast-time in the dining room of the Sputnik Hotel in Baikonur. The friends and families and supporters of Chris Hadfield and Tom Marshburn hastily gulp high-energy foods.  Ham and sweet-breads and plates of eggs disappear quickly. It's -30C outside, quite dark, and there's a wind blowing. We will be going no-matter-what. Now is not the time to diet.

Back in the hotel room we pull on our hockey socks and snow pants. We emerge looking like Michelin People. We board the bus.

Still in the dark we travel on the narrow road leading to the launch pad. I happen to sit beside Mike Fossum, who has flown in space 3 times. Oddly, we talk about camping trips, perhaps encouraged by all the gear we're wearing. It's very low-key. He's a very personable fellow. But a certain tension rises. There is a growing anticipation.  Today we see The Rocket.

The process is quite different from the Shuttle. The Soyuz is put together while horizontal. The building is about 2 miles from the launch pad. A rail line connects them. Our bus simply pulls up to the railway crossing and stops. There's no gate or barrier. We stay on board, waiting. A freight train passes. It's still dark.

In time another light appears. This one moves slowly. Ahhhh.... this is it. We don our gloves and scarfs, zip up tight and go outside. The air stings our cheeks and eyelids, but no one complains. Rapidly we walk up to the track, scuffing the dead grass and brown crumbly soil with our fluffy boots. Hands reach for cameras. Surprised exclamations are uttered by anyone who shakes off a mitt to adjust a dial. Behind us the  dawn lights the endless eastern horizon. In front The Rocket takes shape.
A locomotive arrives at daybreak carrying the Soyuz launch vehicle. Photo: Evan Hadfield
As the sun rises, we get a better view of the massive Soyuz, fresh from the assembly hall, via rail car. Photo: Evan Hadfield

Rocket pad Sisters In Law, Robin (Dave's wife) and Helene (Chris' wife) Hadfield. You can tell they're related by their hats. Photo: Dave Hadfield
The Soyuz is raised. Photo: Evan Hadfield
First in sight are the rocket motors. The machine is cradled onto an elongated custom flatbed rail car. It is being pushed towards us. As it emerges from the gloom we spy out the whole Rocket. My first reaction is, "Hey, it's not very big!" True enough, the Soyuz has none of the ponderous mass of the Shuttle assembly. It's a neat, contained package. We are standing almost close enough to touch. Even then it doesn't over-awe. I gain the impression of a lean, simple design. No huge external fuel tank. No strap on solid boosters.

I try to take pictures. The battery in the good camera rapidly fades in the -30C chill. I resort to my cellphone because I can stuff it quickly into the pocket of my heavy wool pants. Each time I take it out I lose feeling in the fingers of my bare hand. How cold it is... And yet these Russians are unfazed. The train continues down the track at the pace of a brisk walk. No concessions to temperature.

In the time it takes for us to return to the bus and drive the 1 km to the launch pad, The Rocket has arrived. We jump out again and the guards let us pass. We walk up nearly as close once more, astonishingly close. It's daylight now, barely, but no warmer. Cameras flash from every hand. Soon, about the time it takes for frost to start collecting on people's eyelashes, a generator starts up. To be honest, it sounds like a typical Honda-type unit. It might well be! But that signals change, and the sharp end of The Rocket starts to rise. By the time people are trying to stamp blood back into numbing toes, it is vertical. Four counter-balanced arms close in and grasp it securely. The rocket rests, waiting thirstily for fuel.

As we walk back to the bus I bump into Mike again. He says this is the exact pad Yuri Gagarin launched from 51 years ago. I stop and turn, amazed, for one more look. Later, in a restaurant, a toast is made. Today was the 109th anniversary of Orville Wright's flight at Kittyhawk. And between food courses we run outside again to watch the space station as it makes a near-perfect pass overhead.

The feeling of history in the making is palpable.

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