Lara Keytel - April 27, 2002: Experiments and experience - In awe and wonderment
I feel that this might be one of the hardest logs I will have to write. To try and explain in graphic detail, the wonder and awe of watching the Soyuz blast off into space, is going to be no easy task. The last 36 hours have felt so surreal, I still have to pinch myself to realise it was real. The whole experience truly began for me, while in Star City, when I looked at my watch and realised that Mark would have just consumed his second dose of Doubly labelled water, and that he would have already given his saliva sample. Being the scientist, I had a little anxiety attack and immediately contacted Wayne Derman (Markís flight surgeon), in Baikonur, and he told me that Mark had indeed drunk the stable isotopes, and given his first saliva samples. What a rush it was to finally realise that I had a science experiment in the process, and that it would be conducted on the ISS. With that, it was time to make our way to the airport to fly down to Baikonur.
We joined the guests at the Hotel Rossija, and the atmosphere was just electric as we all piled into our bus. We boarded the plane from a different airport, a much newer, cleaner, aesthetically pleasing and modern airport. We could only wonder why this one was not being used for the International flights that we all flew in on. The flight itself was just great. It was a group of family, friends, and colleagues all bound for Baikonur to support Mark, and we had a great time. The air hostesses kept us well fed, well hydrated, and well amused with their Russian mannerisms, and it wasnít long before we touched down in Kazakhstan, and this time customs and passport was a breeze. In fact passport control was a little wooden desk, housed in a building, separating the runway from the road. Our first stop was a breakfast, laid on in true Khazi fashion, bread, yoghurt (not quite as you and I know itÖÖ.), meat (we werenít too sure from which animal it came from) and some fresh salad. We had been assigned an escort to ensure that we would get to each place on time, I imagine that the Italian guests also had a Russian looking after them in the same manner, I will refer to ours as Basil. Well Basil was very diligent about getting us to each stop on time, in fact we were given a count down in minutes, as to the amount of time we had left to finish our breakfast.
Flower Picking and Urination
At the designated time we were ushered out and boarded the bus for the final public appearance by the cosmonauts. The cosmonaut crew have to salute the General of the Soviet Cosmos, and all the media, family, military, and employees to Baikonur witness this. Itís great! The 3 cosmonauts walk out, all suited up, to a cheer that just erupts as they step out of the building. They are real heroes and Mark filled the role just brilliantly, cool, calm and very collected. After this brief public appearance, they are quickly put back onto the quarantine bus and driven to the launch site. The drive is filled with MANY traditions. The first tradition is that the bus stops, and the cosmonauts are supposed to pick flowers, as Gagarin did those many decades ago. They apparently take these with them on the Soyuz. The second tradition is that they have to urinate on the back tire of the bus. Apparently Gagarin did this during his first flight, and now all cosmonauts have to follow this tradition, kind of like marking your terroritory? While the cosmonauts were sharing in these experiences, the rest of us were being bussed around Baikonur, which can only be described as the Karoo, minus the Koppies. Or as Dale Cupido refers to it so poignantly, ďVillage of the Damned.Ē There is honestly nothing there, except the military buildings and accommodation. It is really suitable for the space program, flat for as far as the eye can see, with no large cities to offer any communication interference. Our tour took us around old launching sites and it was fascinating to see relics of the past. We even got to see the Shuttle that the Russianís used, in (and I stand to be corrected here) 1984. It is just standing there, rusting. One of the guests referred to the whole area as the perfect setting for a sequel to a Mad Max movie, lots of scrap metal and scaffolding lying around, as well dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures. By this stage though, we had had enough of looking at broke down places and were itching to get our first look at the rocket and launching pad. Basil sensed this, and with that we were off for the launch pad.
As we got closer to the launch pad, we could see the rocket, and initially we were all struck by how small the rocket and Soyuz were. I guess we were all expecting a huge rocket, similar to the ones the shuttle uses to get into space. I have subsequently found out that the rockets that NASA used to get the shuttle into space, are themselves larger than the one rocket that the Russians use to put the Soyuz into orbit. None the less, I guess we still completely in awe of the launch site. Our viewing spot was 1.5 kmís away from the rocket, much closer than what NASA use, when they send the shuttle up, the viewing spot is 5km away. So we were really close.
Blast -off real time
Once there, we all jockeyed for spots, and prepared ourselves. Initially the count down was in 10-minute breakdowns, starting with 30 minutes. Well from then on, the whole experience was incredible, and atmosphere just electric. There were so many emotions running though you, all at once, it was difficult to catch your breath. A lot of us, were just hoping that everything would be safe. When you see the Soyuz on top of the rockets, you just realise how vulnerable Mark, Yuri and Roberto are and you just pray for their safety. As it got closer and closer to the countdown the emotion just swelled, so much so that when the final minute finally arrived, people were just bursting. There are three scaffolding-like structures that hold the rocket in place, and these are released so that the rocket can lift off, they peel away from the rocket. At 30 seconds to go, the first one is opened, the next one goes at approximately 20 seconds, and the final one at approximately 10 seconds, and then the final count down starts and you honestly are not breathing, everybody was just holding in their breaths as they waited for the rocket to ignite and lift off. When it finally goes, itís almost like there is a silence and then the most deafening roar that builds in ferocity as the rocket slowly lifts off. And it is slowing at first, the picture that I will carry with me for the rest of my life is the rocket suspended just off the ground at eye level, almost hovering, before it gains in power, speed and momentum and then just blasts off. And it is loud, not that you can hear it. As soon as the rocket lifted off, everybody just started screaming and yelling and whooping, it was as if you couldnít believe what you were witnessing. We could see the rocket for about 4 minutes, before it was out of our site, and approximately 8 minutes later we heard over the public announcement that they had orbited.
Proud and Inspired
The emotion that surrounded this event is difficult to describe and by the time comes to the countdown, the emotions are flowing opening and without abandon. As the rocket launches off into space, I donít think there wasnít a South African there, who was not completely lost in the emotion, as Mark blasted off for the ISS. Mark represented so much for so many people, this really wasnít a mission about Mark, but about hopes and dreams and realising ambitions, Mark was our figurehead and carried the whole of South Africa upon his shoulders at that very moment. What Mark is achieving through his accomplishment is going to fuel us for a very long time. I donít recall feeling this proud in a long time, my heart just swelled, and I felt really privileged to have been apart of this great event. Mark has given all of us an opportunity and I feel that everyone has risen to the challenge and we can all feel very proud of ourselves.
Well after that it was relief, lots of tears, Kodak moments, champagne, hugs and kisses as we shared together as South Africanís, at the first launch of the First African in Space. Then it was back to our Kazakhstan hosts for a lunch of note. They were really great and hosted us in the best possible fashion, and everyone was very joyous offering toasts to the cosmonauts, Soviet Cosmos (Russian space agency) and other significant individuals, and then it was time to board our plane and head back to Moscow. Our plane trip was for the most part tame after that experience, we had the same hostesses, and those of us that couldnít sleep, shared openly in what this experience had meant to us and how it had profoundly moved us. Finally, we talked about Mark, about how through his enthusiasm, ability, hard work, and belief in himself was the seed that had brought all of these people together, and allowed him to hold the flame high for South Africa. It was a very proud day!