My week at the Baikonur Cosmodrome - with Professor Mike Cruise

The Soyuz launch pad, Gagarin's Start

Professor Mike Cruise is a space scientist at the University of Birmingham with 40 years’ experience of international space programmes. Mike chairs the European Space Agency's (ESA) Human Exploration Science Advisory Committee (HESAC ) which provides scientific advice to the Agency on the European experiments carried out on the International Space Station.

As UK astronaut Tim Peake makes his landmark flight to the ISS, Professor Cruise will be providing us a daily update from the launch site in Kazakhstan.blog-banner-space

Tuesday 15 December - Launch day

It all feels a bit special now, not like launching robots. Breakfast at the hotel and Tim’s wife and relatives are on the next table, looking excited and confident. The whole demeanour of the family has been marvellous – fantastic ambassadors for the UK in every way. We walk around the corner of the hotel and join a crowd of hundreds waiting for the walkout of the astronauts from their living quarters. Press are lined up, cameras rolling and a huge air of expectation. The British ambassador has been given a Union Jack bobble hat to wear and the British flag is very evident amongst the crowd. There is some mention of the Barmy Army. 

Various groups leave the building including three Russian Orthodox priests, looking conspiratorial.

Tim wavingThen the music starts – not a tune I know, but I feel sure it is the tune they always play when the astronauts walk out to the bus that takes them to Building 254 where they get suited-up. Tim and his two colleagues appear; Tim on the left close to us, but taking pictures is tricky in the jostling crowd.

I get a good shot just when Tim is waving. Although it hides his face somewhat, it sums up his friendly approach to the whole process – smiles and waves for everyone, always time to talk to new people, always a thoughtful and relevant comment.

The three astronauts get into their bus and someone holds Tim’s children up to the window for a goodbye wave.

Sirens start up and a motorcade leads the two buses away, one with the astronauts and one with the families. In the empty car park the crowd mingles around for a while in the cold and eventually we troop back to the hotel. I talk with previous astronauts and they recall their feelings prior to the launch. It is very special , they say. And we believe them. Off in the other direction go the priests. Perhaps they have other tasks to perform before launch.

Our next duty is to see the astronauts leave after suiting-up and then we all get bussed off to the launch site for the real business. It is about five hours to the launch and they have started the final countdown at the range itself.

We travel to the range by bus and are led to what looks like the back of a supermarket. But the crowds are gathering and each section has an allotted place marked in the tarmac. 

There is a strong British presence formed by Tim’s family and friends and they do a great job.

astronautsAfter an hour the astronauts come out walk down the prepared walkway, salute the senior officials and then they are off in a bus to the launcher.  All three have a peculiarly bent posture caused by the straps needed to make them comfortable in the capsule.  On the bus we can see Tim waving to his two boys being held up for him to see. The family atmosphere of Tim’s flight is remarkable and everyone comments on how open and supportive they seem as a family unit.

I notice the priests around again, so clearly their work is not finished yet. They appear again and again throughout the day.

But we are now off to the launch viewing station, remarkably close to the launcher for such a big rocket. Again the crowds and the press partitioned into their own allotted spaces. We arrive a rather disrespectful 35 minutes before launch, a bit like turning up slightly early to see a film at your local cinema. Surely there is more to do, more ceremony, more traditions- but no. We stand and watch the launch vehicle standing white against the khaki-brown steppe and try to follow the countdown in Russian. The rocket looks tiny- are there really three men on top of that?

lift offThen it is time and off they go. A kind American is translating the loudspeaker announcements for us and we are told all is well. Every stage to orbit progresses nominally, that’s the word we want to hear- nominally, no heroics, no superlatives. In situations like this “nominal” is best and we like it and clap. Next more buses and planes, more waiting, more planes and then home. We came all this way to see something launched and it turned out to be a human being called Tim. A real person with a lovely family and a red haired son. Nothing like a Robot at all…………….

blog-banner-space

Monday 14 December

tim-peakeNot so busy today as it turns out. We have some free time for discussions between delegations in the morning and after lunch are invited to attend a showing of a film “White Sun of the Desert”. This is a slightly bizarre event. Every cosmonaut crew watches this same film the day before launch. It is a Baikonur tradition (again). The film is a curious cross between Beau Geste and James Bond. A somewhat laconic hero is travelling home across the desert to his home and his wife, but his journey is continually interrupted by the need to sort out everyone else’s troubles. It has nothing to do with space or aviation, but everything to do with heroism, good spirits and the fact that good will triumph over evil. Not only has every cosmonaut crew watched it, but we are cautioned that one cosmonaut went out of the room before the end and subsequently was taken very ill in orbit.

These “Baikonur Traditions” (and there are many more) are in reality superstitions. Apparently the locomotive that pulls the Soyuz to the launch pad must have only one of its two front lights shining because that was what happened at the first launch and that was successful. So it must not be changed. For a process which ultimately depends on physics and engineering, subjects not known to be controlled by ritual and spurious belief, these superstitions seem odd to me. But they are taken very seriously ( why would one want to risk a failure by shining two lights on the locomotive?). Probably because they provide a format to each day of preparation. Anyway, who are the British to criticise traditions - so I will keep quiet and watch the film right to the end.

Later in the evening we have a full briefing about the launch day and a showing of the BBC’s Horizon programme about Tim Peake’s mission. Now the phones start humming with request for interviews, including mine. They work OK over the phone line, but the logistics of changing where I am planned to be tomorrow defeat us all. The press can’t move from their zone and we can’t move from ours, so unless we happen to collide somewhere, this could all be quite difficult. The organisation here is very complex and demands a great deal of effort from the different agencies - some to look after the astronaut families, some to look after VIP’s and super VIP’s, while others deal with the press and, one hopes, someone looks after the guys working on the rocket. All will be clear in the morning....

blog-banner-space

Sunday 13 December

We are collected from the hotel early because the “rollout” of the Soyuz launch vehicle starts at 7 am and is well worth seeing. The timing is a Baikonur tradition from the days when Korolyev ran the space programme here. Before launch he would party all night and then demand that the vehicle starts its journey from the test area to the launch tower before he went to sleep. All rollouts start at 7 am, it is a Baikonur tradition we are told again. The sight is very impressive, the Soyuz launcher on its side carried by a special railway truck. The sky is completely dark but searchlights and the headlights of the buses help you find a path across the rough ground to the railway track and then the Soyuz launcher passes by. The motors at the bottom are huge but the white capsule at the top seems quite small and it is there that three astronauts will sit for the launch and the journey to the Space Station. It will be cramped.

Very cold in Kazakhstan - Professor Mike Cruise with the Soyuz rocket that will launch Tim Peake into spaceWe stand in small groups muffled against the cold, the temperature is minus 9, and take pictures as the vehicle is winched into the launch tower. The design is remarkably elegant in an engineering sense. The whole vehicle is supported in the tower on four metal fingers at the end of cantilevered arms. As the rocket takes off the arms rotate out of the way of their own accord. The whole process of loading the Soyuz into the launch tower takes about 2 hours, dawn is breaking and at minus 9 this is enough. Even in thick gloves my hands are aching with the cold as I return to the bus. One by one the mobile phones in our group drop out of action as the cold affects the batteries, pictures fail to be taken, twitter feeds are interrupted. Nature is fighting back against the technology invasion.

We are back at the hotel, hoping for a coffee, but the restaurant is firmly shut so we reconvene for a visit to the Astronaut centre where we meet Tim Peake, separated from us by a glass wall as part of the quarantine arrangements. We can talk with him via microphones and I ask him about his objectives in the education programme he plans to run from space. He answer is thoughtful and engaging. Tim is a most impressive person and deals effortlessly with a barrage of questions. We wish him luck and leave him to his final preparations.

Outside we are taken to a grove of trees, each planted by previous space-farers before launch. It is a Baikonur tradition we are told and Tim will do it tomorrow. In the afternoon we are taken into Baikonur town and see monuments to those who have died in the two large rocket disasters here. Both happened on October 24th, one in 1960 and the other in 1963. The coincidence in the dates means that no launch ever takes place on October 24th now. It is a Baikonur tradition.

Tomorrow will be busy again.

blog-banner-space

Saturday 12 December

Another early start with the UK delegation meeting in the hotel lobby at 05.30 followed by a bus ride to Vnukovo airport for the charter to Baikonur. The group comprises: the UK ambassador to Russia, the Head of the UK Space Agency, the Government Chief Science Adviser, an ex-government Science Minister, several senior management from the European Space Agency and a sprinkling of UK space scientists, of which I am one. Advised in our joining instructions to wear casual clothes, we look for all the world like a group of elderly, but genteel, cricket fans on a world tour.

At the airport we meet up with others on their way to Baikonur. Notably, members of Tim Peake’s family-his wife and children, his parents and others. Suddenly the launch of something into space takes on a human aspect as his children run around the airport. Now we see it is a real person who will be in the rocket - not a Robot. I have worked in space science for a long time, essentially launching Robots to do my work for me. Robots are precise, predictable - and they don’t have children with red hair. In a way that I had not anticipated this all begins to take on a different aspect- launching humans , not Robots.

The flight is delayed and delayed but we finally get away and rise above the clouds. After a while they clear and we can see Kazakstahn below us. Huge, flat and a light Khaki colour with splashes of white where the frost and snow have gathered, Occasionally there is a long straight road or railway line but basically it seems to be a large, cold desert with little or no habitation. We landed on the runway built for the Russian “Buran” space vehicle, developed as a close competitor to the US Shuttle but used only once. There is one other plane and two military helicopters. There are dark brown camels clustering around the fence at the edge of the runway - they look cold, too.

A bus takes us 200 metres to a small building where 120 people queue for passport clearance into Kazakstahn. The room is the size of my living room at home and so 70-80 wait outside on the runway at temperatures of 1-2 degrees Celsius for their turn. And they wait for 50 minutes or more. We approach the passport desk in pairs, with some trepidation. Will the visa be valid? Will they let me in? Will they understand any English? The passport officer asks the man next to me where he is from. “Lincolnshire”, he replies, rather unhelpfully I thought. “Oh”, the officer says in heavily accented English, “Lincoln City is now in the second division, isn’t it.” English culture spans the world.

It takes two hours to process the whole planeload and we then separate into various buses for a 40 minute journey through the grey and gloom to our hotel, expectations falling as the journey proceeds. We have been travelling for many hours, we are tired and don’t even know what time zone we are in. Then, suddenly, we are at the Sputnik Hotel in Baikonur. Suddenly we have a room key. Suddenly we are warm and there is a restaurant with food. Suddenly there is a bar with a beer before dinner and a bowl of Pringles. English culture spans the world.

blog-banner-space

Friday 11 December

An early start for the airport and it’s quite cold – but not as cold as my destination will be. I am travelling to Baikonur in Kazakstahn as part of the UK delegation at the launch into space of the first official British astronaut, Tim Peake. On Tuesday next week he will be launched to the International Space Station to work for six months with astronauts from Russia and the US. The temperature in the UK was 8C this morning; Moscow is 2C this evening and Baikonur will be -8C or lower. We have been told to bring clothing to cope with -25C, but are only allowed 14Kg of luggage, which turns out to be a bit tricky.

The journey from Domodyedovo Airport outside Moscow to the city centre started along roads with silver birch forests on either side, and it really felt like Russia, but the route soon merged into suburban streets and eventually congested city traffic. It took as long to travel from the airport to the hotel as it did by plane from London to Moscow.

The UK delegation is arriving this evening by different routes with different arrival times at a central Moscow hotel and we will leave early tomorrow for a charter flight to Baikonur itself. The launch site has historic roots for the space community. It was here that Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, and Gagarin also started his space journey from Baikonur. It will be interesting to see what it is like. I feel a bit like a football fan going to Wembley for the first time.

We are being entertained this evening by the UK Embassy followed by what may be a very short night….