Launch Day – Liftoff!: by Tim O’Keefe
This was a day filled with thrills, emotion, patriotism at its maximum, and intrigue at every turn. It was nothing like anything Becky and I have ever experienced in our lives.
Rest was the early formula for what we knew would be a long night, with the launch scheduled at exactly 31 seconds after 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. I went for a long walk to the local market in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the town created by the Soviet Union to launch their space program in 1955. After lunch, just about everyone here took as long a nap as possible, and after a quick light supper, our day was really just beginning.
At 8 p.m. we left the Sputnik Hotel, our headquarters, and went over to the Cosmonaut Hotel, where the astronaut/cosmonaut team has been in quarantine for close to the last two weeks. As friends and family, we had a chance Monday to spend a half hour with Karen, albeit she was isolated from us behind a pane of glass with a microphone to communicate.
Tonight we got to see the traditional walk the team makes in their flight suits to the bus from the hotel as they make their way to the launch site. The Russians are a bit more informal in their protocol and traditions than the U.S. shuttle program was, and we were amazed at how close we were to the team as we saw them off.
Karen gave all of her guests a commemorative t-shirt, pins, and decals, along with American flags she encouraged us all to wave vigorously when we were able to see her. As she and her teammates emerged from the hotel, the crowd of about 50 burst into applause, and the Italian friends and family of Luca Parmitano burst into a vigorous and loud version of “Volare'” which Luca joined in as he walked.
The ever-present Karen Nyberg smile was relaxed and radiant as she sought out her supporters and made an effort to make eye contact and wave to each. She was preceded in the walk by her husband, Doug, and brother, Jon.
Doug knows this routine firsthand, although his two trips to the International Space Station were on the space shuttle. Karen once told me, “I didn’t know how stressful the launch is on family and friends until Doug went to ISS after we were married.” Karen and Doug are the only current married astronauts, and they have a 3-year-old son, Jack.
After the team departed, we went behind the Cosmonaut Hotel to an area previously restricted for the team only when they were in quarantine.There’s a large sauna, swimming pool (the water did not look clear andinviting), a tennis court (like they’re going to play tennis before a flight!), and, most interesting, a tree-lined beautiful walk.
The trees planted along the walkway follow a tradition started by the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1960.
Every cosmonaut/astronaut launched from Baikonur has planted a tree, now numbering more than 100.
Back briefly to the hotel, then off to the launch site at 10:30 p.m., first to see Karen for the last time after she and the Expedition 36 team were fully suited up in their space suits ready to get into the Soyuz space capsule for the six hour flight to ISS.
You quickly get used to “hurry up and wait” as we lined up along a chain fence outside the building as the team dressed one byone. There is always a ceremonial aspect, and we could see many camera flashes going off inside the building.
About 11:20 p.m., a herd of media came out of the building in a flurry, and the Mayor of Kazakhstan and a member of the Russian Federation Space Agency lined up at the end of a processional runway. At exactly 11:30 (although with the Russians the “rules” are fluid, they are always exactly on time when it relates to space), Luca, Fyodor, and Karen came out the door in their bulky space suits.
Every time we saw Karen, including during the 8-minute, 48-second ride into orbit, she had an immense smile on her face. This occasion was no different. She had encouraged us to wave our flags, and she immediately sought out “Team Nyberg” and made eye contact and waved as well.
After a brief ceremony with the Mayor and the head of the Russian delegation, there was a handshake and off they went into the bus with their medical staff to loud cheers from the about 150 people on hand.
It was exhilarating. From our own limited exposure to Karen this week, to those we talked to among NASA staff to include the few astronauts present, she was so extremely well prepared and anxious for her six month stint, and everything about her reflected as much.
After the bus left, we were taken to the Cosmonaut Museum at the launch site. As I’ve mentioned before, Baikonur exists for one reason only and that’s to support the Russian space program. While I was impressed with the space museum in town, this one at the launch site was incredible. It has one of the Russian Space Shuttles you can tour. Many of us probably don’t remember the Russians had a space shuttle program, too. It was flown unmanned a couple times, but never launched with a human into space.
The inside of the museum was a complete history of space with, as you would expect, an emphasis on the Russian program, but included that of the U.S., Canadian. European and Japanese programs as well.
From the Museum we went to the 7 Winds Hotel a couple miles from the launch location, where the Russians hosted a huge dinner for us that began at 1 a.m. Multiple courses and, thank goodness, no vodka! The food was typical Russian fare and excellent, and a great way to pass the time when we were all on edge anticipating the launch.
Finally it was time.
We arrived at our viewing location about three-quarters of a mile from the launch site. This experience was very different from Karen’s launch on the space shuttle in 2008, which Becky and I also attended at her invitation.
The closest family and friends got in Florida was over three miles away. For three hours prior to launch we were able to listen to the banter between Mission Control and the astronauts on board. There was a countdown clock we constantly were aware of.
Here, there was no countdown clock or public address until briefly before launch. We arrived around twenty minutes before liftoff. In the U.S., the national anthem is sung five minutes before launch, and the last two minutes before the space shuttle liftoff you could barely hear anyone breathe. Last night, there was constant conversation and shuffling for position right up until launch, and no countdown.
Four minutes prior to launch, the International Space Station passed right over the launch site. It was very visible as a bright moving star above, and once the Soyuz took off it was a chase to catch up and dock with ISS.This was the second flight planning a four-orbit, six-hour set of maneuvers which allowed the team to align with and dock at the Space Station. Each orbit takes 90 minutes. If this plan failed, the team would need 34 orbits over two days to dock with ISS. We were fortunate to stand next to the voice of NASA TV as he gave those of us around him a “play by play” right up until the team was in orbit.
In the space shuttle program, the astronaut team arrived in the shuttle at least three hours before liftoff. Here the Soyuz does not require much pre-flight work by the team, and they are in the capsule for only a little more than an hour before takeoff.
When the time came for the launch, you could feel the emotion and anticipation all around. The flames and noise are extreme, to the point where an amateur wonders if everything is OK.
The Soyuz rises very slowly originally from the launch pad, and suddenly the roar gets even higher as the rocket’s energy kicks in and it takes off into the evening sky leaving a bright orange flame behind.
While the early stages of the takeoff are the most dangerous, and most strenuous on the crew (all the astronauts say the first two and a half minutes are “violent” shaking), until the team goes through all three rocket stages and are safely in orbit at exactly 8 minutes, 48 seconds, no one completely breathes easy and relaxes.
The Soyuz three stages each fall off separately across remote areas of eastern Kazakhstan.
In some cases the pieces of the booster have fallen into villages in the most remote areas of the steppes in this geography of the Kaz landscape. Villagers are known to track down the remnants of the rocket boosters, scavenging the copper, steel, metal; anything they can sell for value.
NASA video of Day of Lanch
Currently, the Russians operate the Soyuz program in Baikonur under a 50 year agreement with the Kazakhstan government, paying them $150 million a year. That may change, as Vladimir Putin has begun work on a launch site in eastern Siberia, close to the China border. With the rapid growth of the missile program in China, one can only speculate as to the possible broader purpose of this location if it ever comes to fruition.
As Karen and husband Doug are the only married astronauts, it’s interesting we still live in a world where for some it’s OK for a married man with children to go to outer space, but they question a woman doing the same. Karen is living a dream she announced to her family in the 4th grade, and the sacrifice she’s paid competing in a world-class environment to achieve her goals is impressive.
As I left the site, I felt the emotion she was safe, and the tremendous pride of her UND background. While her Master’s and Doctorate were achieved elsewhere, she has retained an firm loyalty to UND.
Karen Nyberg is an explorer, scientist and researcher, a passionate role model for STEM, mothers everywhere, and every little girl OR boy who, like her, has a dream.
Tonight will be extremely short for us. Back to the hotel at 4 a.m., we will leave at 7:30 to watch the docking of the Soyuz capsule with the Space Station around 9:15 this morning. About an hour and a half or so later, we’ll witness the opening of the hatch uniting the three astronauts on board with those in the Soyuz.