UND In Space: Day 5

Up Close with the Soyuz: by Tim O’Keefe

Day 5 began as another early morning, as the bus to the rollout of the Soyuz rocket and space capsule left the hotel at 7:30 a.m. After passing through Russian security checkpoints, we were off through the Kazakhstan landscape past several launch sites to the eventual location where the launch of ISS Expedition 36 will occur. The trip took a little over a half hour, passing a herd of camels and another of wild horses along the way.

The landscape looks “lunar”, virtually no green whatsoever. There were two buses, filled with the families and invited guests of the three astronauts, along with officials from NASA, the Russian, European, and Japanese Space Agencies. This consortium, including the Canadian Space Agency and others, support the Space Station, although there is no doubt the Russians are in charge. Every aspect of the launch and the Space Station is “negotiated” right now down to a level of detail to include the patch the astronaut team designs for each expedition. It’s very clear the Russians control most final decisions, at least those exclusive to the launch. They “have the keys to the car” as the Soyuz program is the only current way to get to ISS.

Although there are various programs in development by several countries, most notably the Chinese, these facts are indisputable:

  • The Soyuz has been around a very long time, is simple, safe, and economical.
  • Despite the U.S. position of leadership in the space world and all the benefits we achieve on earth as a result of the research, experiments, the growth of STEM, etc. we are no longer in an eminent position and are rapidly falling behind. The U.S. Space program was 6% of the federal budget back in the 1960s at the peak of the Apollo Space program and the race to the moon. Currently NASA receives .6% of the U.S. budget, of which around a third is invested directly into the space program.

Once at the site of the launch, and shortly after leaving the bus to line up along the train tracks, we soon could see the train with the Soyuz rocket and capsule loaded on it in the distance.

As the train slowly made its way to us, we were amazed by how sleek and relatively short the Soyuz is in comparison to how massive the Space Shuttle was with its huge booster rockets attached.

Becky and I rode in the bus next to  Frank DeWinne, a Belgian astronaut who is now the Head of the European Astronaut Centre. Frank made two trips to the International Space Station, in 2002 as a Flight Engineer and 2009 as the Pilot and Commander. He is also recognizable as the Astronaut who introduced U2 from space at every concert on their 2011 worldwide tour! He is filled with interesting facts and most willing to share them.

One distinction he pointed out between the Soyuz program and the Space Shuttle was the difference in the “ride” during their first two and a half minutes. The Space Shuttle was a much more turbulent couple minutes, and the difference is mainly in the size of the shuttle vehicle itself which requires the additional large boosters of fuel to achieve the speed necessary to “punch a hole in the atmosphere” and get into orbit. In its first 2 1/2 minutes, the Soyuz, which has three stages of rockets to get the team into orbit, will be over 80,000 feet into the sky traveling between Mach 6-8 miles per hour. According to Frank, it takes exactly 528 seconds for the astronaut team to leave the earth’s atmosphere and achieve orbit.

Each of the astronauts we’ve talked to who have gone into space identifies the first two and a half minutes as a ride so incredibly violent it’s difficult to describe. As Doug Hurley, Karen Nyberg’s husband said, “I knew it was a very rough couple of minutes, but I didn’t know how truly violent it was until I watched the video after returning to earth”.

Once the Soyuz passed us on the train, we returned to the bus and made the relatively short ride to the actual launch site. We were pleasantly surprised at how close we were allowed to get in proximity to the actual rocket and launch pad. The simplicity of how the rocket with space capsule is raised into position is amazing and takes very little time.

Basically the weight of the Soyuz rocket rests on its four legs, with padded “arms” with counter weights raised into position to support the rocket until launch, but the counter weights are not attached directly to it. At launch time at 2:30:31 a.m. Wednesday morning (Kazakhstan time), as the rockets fire, the counter weights are activated and the support arms fall away harmlessly as the Soyuz rocket begins to rise from the launch pad.

Again, perhaps as a consequence of a lack of knowledge, it floored me when we were told the primary fuel used in the Soyuz rocket is kerosene, mixed with some oxidizers and some form of oxygen. The fuel is not loaded into the rocket until launch day.

As I mentioned earlier, the Soyuz rocket with the space capsule on top is not nearly as big as we expected. The lines of the rocket are striking, and when in place the stature and beauty are quite becoming to see. At the very top of the space capsule there are four small rockets you can easily see. These are in case of an emergency during takeoff or anytime through the three rocket stages which carry the space capsule into orbit.

There are three locations where a “failsafe” switch can be activated in case of an emergency. The primary is in a bunker close to the launch pad where a member of the Russian Space Agency has binoculars and is trained/assigned to watch the takeoff very closely. A second is in mission control, the third is on board in the Russian Commander’s control.

This emergency procedure has been used twice, both successfully. One of the appealing aspects of the Soyuz program is its safety record. Most notable was the first occasion around thirty years ago, when two Russian cosmonauts were forced to abandon their mission when the third stage rocket failed. They successfully employed the emergency rockets, and parachuted safely to earth. It took two days to find them in the remote Kazakhstan landscape. Today simple GPS would allow rescuers to find the astronaut capsule within minutes. As you likely recall, the lack of a emergency option was a significant liability of the Space Shuttle program.

After the first two minutes or so, according to the astronauts, the rest of the ride into orbit is relatively smooth. Today they don’t typically experience more than 4 G’s on the way up, less than the “old days.”

Before leaving the site, we visited an obelisk which is dedicated to the Russian Space program. It was built in 1957, is maintained close to the launch site. It reads, “To the genius of the people of the Soviet Union as they begin their ambitious program into space”.

Last interesting fact from the rollout: official camera men, videographers, etc. are allowed to capture the launch from as close as a couple hundred yards away! This is in contrast to U.S. safety restrictions — which frankly make sense — of using remote cameras, but keeping humans at least a mile from the site. When Karen launched in the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2008, friends and family were a little over three miles from the launch site. That particular launch just about destroyed the site, with chunks of cement blowing through a fence a half mile away.

You can watch Karen’s launch at what will be Wednesday morning here in Kazakhstan, live at home in the Red River Valley at 3:30 Tuesday afternoon on the Internet at www.nasa.gov/ntv. I would encourage you to do so!

After leaving the launch site and a quick lunch, we left our hotel, the Sputnik, and went over to astronaut quarantine at the Cosmonaut Hotel to see Karen. We were swiftly guided into a large conference room, and there she was behind a glass partition waiting for the eight of us!

We were given microphones to communicate, and she had one too. After we all took pictures with Karen on the other side of the glass, the group traded the microphone back and forth in relaxed and lively conversation. I know she enjoyed as much as we did. Quarantine gets very long for the astronauts at this point. Karen can see her husband, Doug, and brother, Jon, for brief dedicated time every day, but they cannot stay in the same hotel much less the two of them as a married couple.

Needless to say she’s anxious to go! I told her how proud we all are she’s representing UND so impressively, and she responded as always with humility, gratitude, and great memories of her time on campus. While obviously studies were her priority, there are also fond recollections of hockey games and an occasional night at Bonzer’s! The conversation ranged broadly among us as, between the eight of us, there were varying times and background in the relationship with Karen. As she plans to be the first astronaut to quilt in space, Becky and she even discussed that and other similar creative hobbies they share!

Karen is taking something special into space with her from UND — but more on that later in this trip!

It was one of the most fascinating, exhilarating, and fun days Becky and I have ever enjoyed. We will see Karen twice more preceding the launch. When she leaves the hotel Tuesday night, we will be within eyesight to cheer her on and wave small American flags she gave us. Then at the launch site, when the astronauts leave the space facility on site fully dressed in their space suits on their way to enter the Soyuz capsule for launch, we will again be there to wave our flags and say goodbye.

Karen will return to earth on November 11. In the meantime you can follow her experiences daily on Twitter at @AstroKarenN.

Tomorrow, the Russian Space Museum in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and hopefully some much needed rest.

Best regards,