Traveling to Kazakhstan: by Tim O’Keefe
Day four began with a very early wakeup call at 4 a.m. Breakfast in a box, although I never envisioned a ham, cheese, cucumber sandwich as breakfast!
The trip to the Moscow airport took an hour, albeit it was a rare time when massive traffic jams were absent.
After clearing security at the airport and checking into our Aeroflot charter flight, we had a couple hours to kill until the 9 am departure. This time proved invaluable, as the plane occupants were not only from the U.S., but also the European, Japanese, and Russian Space Agencies, along with the family and friends invited by the three astronauts.
Other than UND’s Karen Nyberg, ’94, from Vining, Minn., who will fly “right seat” as a Flight Engineer, the “left seat” occupant is Luca Parmitano from Italy, and the pilot and Commander is Fyoder Yurchikin from Russia. As the Commander of ISS Expedition 36, Yurchikin will be making his third trip to the International Space Station.
Luca, who is married to an American and has two young daughters who are staying in the Sputnik Hotel with their Mom (same location as us), will be on his first mission to ISS, while Karen on her second mission.
Karen’s husband, Doug Hurley (they are the only married astronauts), who made two trips to ISS and piloted the last shuttle mission Atlantis in 2008, is here while their son, Jack, is back in Houston with his grandparents.
The trip to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, took three hours and took us into two more time zones. We are now a full 11 hours time difference ahead of the Red River Valley. You can swiftly see why the Russians picked this area to launch their space program in 1955. It is absolute desert conditions, in fact the landscape appears much like that of the moon.
Baikonur did not exist until the former Soviet Union created the city to accommodate the creation of their space program in 1955. In 1963 they constructed an airport, which is the same we flew into today. It is very barren and the terminal is quite small, essentially serving the occasional military or charter flight for the many launches which occur here primarily for commercial purposes.
In 1965 train service was added to Baikonur, and the infrastructure began to grow, especially as the Cold War progressed to its heights in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s before the fall of the Soviet Union. Baikanur peaked in population during this period with a populace approaching 200,000, and since that time has scaled back to around 80,000 now.
Everything in Baikonur revolves around the Russian Space program. As Kazakhstan is now a separate country, the Russians lease the area from the Kazaks.
The weather here is extreme; very hot in the summer, radically cold in the winter. For example, for the Soyuz launch last July, the charter plane had to leave early enough in the day before the 120 degree peak temperature of the afternoon, for fear the planes tires would sink into the runway.
After arriving in Baikonur at 2 p.m. and clearing Kazakhstan customs, we checked into the Sputnik Hotel, our home for the four nights we’re here. The Sputnik was built in 2001 specifically for westerners, and while the appearance is stark, it’s very clean and comfortable inside. Immediately upon leaving the airport we were greeted by a herd of camels, who run wild throughout the area.
Once settled, the Russians, Europeans, Japanese and Americans all headed downtown to, of all names in Kazakhstan, Palermo’s Pizza! The pizza was outstanding, the beer very good, and the conversation even better.
Another long day and tomorrow brings what seems an endless series of early wake up time at 5 a.m. We’re all very excited as we will head out to the launch site to watch the rollout of the Soyuz rocket with the space capsule mounted on it. The energy in the astronauts here on various assignments and the other NASA officials about the roll out is really interesting and invigorating. Among the unique things to come the next few days, they rate the roll out as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We will also get to see and spend time with Karen tomorrow, albeit she will be behind glass as the astronauts are in quarantine. Husband, Doug, and Karen’s brother, Jon, who is also here, can see her “face to face” for brief periods of time, but only after they go through the scrutiny of NASA medical personnel.
While a great day to look forward to, I’m hoping to get my first good night’s sleep. The time zone changes have been grueling, affecting me more than any other trip. I’m in good company, as even the NASA astronauts from Houston are complaining about the same thing.