Lara Keytel - April 29, 2002: Zero G’s and docking parties - Zero G’s and docking parties
Following launch day, a lot of us were left wondering if it could get much better, so Friday and the weekend were there just to prove that it could. First thing Friday morning, we got a call that there were a couple of open places on the second Zero G flight, and this meant that some of us from the FAIS team would have the opportunity to participate.
Karen, Nicolette, Wayne and myself were bussed, along with the last of the outstanding guests still to do the flight, to the military airfield just adjacent to Star City. We watched the Zero G plane, a Cargo plane, land and park just next to our bus. We waited in anticipation for the first group to disembark from the plane, down a metal stepladder. As we waited our anxiety levels were elevated, as we noticed that many of the guests appeared to assume a very telling position on the ground. Of the group that had just flown, only 3 of the 15 passengers had not felt nauseous. Well we not left to contemplate this as we were quickly steered onto the cargo plane, by our instructors for the flight. The interior of the plane is completely stripped, and along each side of the plane there are two hand rails, one at the height of your hips and the other at the height of the roof of the plane. The floor is covered completely with a large cushioned mat, presumably for a soft landing? Our flight began with our instructor, Boris, having each of us fitted with our own parachutes, this was really very novel for all of us, and we beamed like kids at Christmas as he took us through the emergency procedures, should we need to parachute from the plane. I thought that this was the perfect ploy to redirect our anxiety away from the ensuing flight, and we taken step by step through the emergency procedures, and how to operate our parachutes. I felt just like G.I.Jane as I was taken through the procedures on how to roll and dive and release myself from trees.
We were then taken through the actual procedures of the Zero G flight; we would do a series of 10 parabolas. The plane climbs to a height of 60 000 ft, during which time passengers experience 2 G’s of gravity. The plane then gently dives down to a height of 10 000 ft, over 30 seconds, and it is during this time one experiences zero gravity (zero g), or weightlessness. At 10 000 ft, the plane, gently comes out the dive, and you float down to the floor of the plane, experiencing a soft landing. Well after this explanation I was ready and fired for my flight. With that it was take off time, and we were allowed to lounge around inside the plane as we took off, clearly excited and full of anticipation. Our group was made up of 11 “guests” and about 15 instructors. As the plane headed out of Moscow towards a rural area, we all were just beaming.
The Zero-G Club
The time quickly came for our first parabola, an instructor paired up with each of the guests as the plane climbed up, and we experienced the 2 G’s. Then the signal came for the dive, as huge spotlights suddenly illuminated the inside of the plane. What happened next was unbelievable; we all just started floating up to the middle of the plane. To get your mind around what was happening was probably the most difficult thing, but once you gave yourself over to the sensation and just relaxed and stopped resisting the floating, well it was just the most liberating feeling. There you are floating and flying and twisting and turning, it is something that I will never forget. As it happened everybody was just laughing and screeching with delight. Well the first parabola was over too soon, and we made ourselves ready for the next one. Boris informed us that this one was to be the group picture time, as we all formed a chain across the plane, linking arms and legs. As we again experienced the zero G, the group floated up to the middle of the plane, forming a very amateur sky-diving star, it was arms and legs all of the place, and we couldn’t help but get tangled up in each other, which provided probably the best picture, as we came out of the dive, and landed in a collective heap in the middle of the plane, arms and legs, and bodies all intertwined, similar to a collapsed scrum on a rainy Newlands turf. After that the flight just went too quickly, with each successive parabola, we took turns being floated “superman-style” across the plane, spun like a ninja warrior from “Crouching tiger, Hidden Dragon” and flipped like we were taken part in the 3 metre diving competition at the Olympic games. The instructors were amazing, and once they realised that only 2 of the guests were feeling slightly ill, engaged us completely in the antics and games of Zero G. This experience with out a doubt is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and I felt quite spoiled as we all high “five’d” welcoming each other to the Zero G club.
Saturday, turned out to be another really BIG day in the life of the First African in Space Project. Not only was it Freedom Day back in South Africa, but it was the day of docking, and we were going to be able to witness this at mission control, TSUP. The atmosphere was electric as we all prepared for the docking. All the dignitaries associated with the European and Russian space agencies were there, plus we had a huge contingent of South Africans that had specifically stayed for the docking.
The docking was filmed from both the Soyuz and ISS, although the picture that we saw was from the Soyuz. It was really fascinating to watch the docking, and we were fortunate to witness it, as it had been timed perfectly as the ISS was in both radio and visual communications with TSUP. We watched the docking from the mission control room; this is the really large room that you always see on the movies. It has a large screen, about the size of a movie screen, with two smaller ones on each side, 5 screens in total, the actual room, about the size of the inside of the old 3 Arts Theatre, is filled with consoles containing smaller screens, everyone wears a headphone set and looks really serious.
After the actual docking, the ISS went out of communication range and everyone went to celebrate and raise a glass of champagne. The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, and as a result this time was spent celebrating, while we waited for the mother ship to slip back into radio and visual communication. During the next comms time, we watched as Mark, Yuri and Roberto entered into the ISS from the Soyuz, and greeted the permanent crew on-board. It was a very special moment, and I think we all felt proudly South African. During the next comms session, Mark would communicate with President Thabo Mbeki. How appropriate it was that today was Freedom day in South African, and the president was attending a Freedom rally in the Orange Free State. Mark’s conversation was to be televised live on the big screen in the stadium. As the time approached we all filed into the main control room, the ambassador to Russia from South Africa, Dr Mochubela Seekoe, completed the introduction and then it was time for Mark to chat to the president. Mark had appropriately changed into a Bafana Bafana competition jersey and looked every part the model citizen he is. As we watched on in the control room, with Mark’s family seated next to the Ambassador, our hearts really swelled and it was a very special time.
That evening we attended the official docking party, hosted at Star City, by Yuri’s wife. Russian and European space agency officials, as well as NASA people attended the party. It was quite an intimate affair that was filled with many toasts, cheers and well wishes as each person got to raise a glass of either vodka or champagne to the 3 cosmonauts.
Sunday was a recovery day, spent at TSUP. Mark had a couple of televised interviews, and I couldn’t help but notice how well he was looking, especially after yesterday, where he appeared to be slightly “puffy” in the face, following the redistribution of fluid in his body due to the micro gravity environment. In fact I couldn’t help but notice how comfortable and at ease he appeared to be. He had his laptop working, and was happily communicating with the world. He really looked every part the cosmonaut he is and seemed to be just thriving in the environment.