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Baikonur

It ain't pretty, but it sure does work.

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“I guess he’ll go with the flow,” Stringham-Shepherd said.

Launch day arrived in another foggy shroud. First we elbowed into the room where Shepherd, Krikalev, and Gidzenko were having their suits leak-tested behind a glass partition. Then it was time to jockey for a place outside, where we would all witness a tradition held over from the Soviet space program. For decades, cosmonauts had emerged from the building to prescribed marks on the asphalt, to stand at attention as the mission commander saluted smartly and reported to the senior general that the crew was ready for flight.

Only this time, an American stood on the commander’s spot. Shepherd saluted, and Lieutenant General Grin softened the hard-edged Russian convention by stepping forward to clasp each man’s hand and murmur final farewells.

The crew had been installed in the tiny Soyuz at least an hour before we arrived at the reviewing stands, which stood a half mile from Site 1. Concrete friezes of Gagarin, the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft, and other cosmonauts and missions, their colors weathered into powdery pastels, decorated the outside of the buildings. The heavy fog persisted, but at 10 minutes before launch, the pad finally appeared in the distance, with the Soyuz frosted white from the frigid liquid oxygen within.

The sound hit first. A deepening roar, a flash as the rocket rose and cleared the tower, and then, just as on rollout day, it disappeared into the fog, reappearing 30 seconds later as a bright, diamond-shaped light high above our heads.

NASA Administrator Dan Goldin stood nearby sipping celebratory whiskey. “The Russians trust us to launch cosmonauts on the shuttle, and we trust them to launch our astronauts on their rockets,” Goldin said. “When we went to the moon, we were really proud—we knew we were changing history. But the ISS is a more significant activity… instead of pointing missiles at each other, we learned from each other. It’s a wonderful day, not for America, not for Russia, but for the people who live on this planet.”

Beth Stringham-Shepherd and astronaut Julie Payette had stood huddled around a television monitor sitting on the reviewing stand that showed a sometimes fuzzy view of the astronauts inside the capsule as it rose. There were cheers and hugs as Russian ground controllers announced via loudspeaker that the capsule had achieved orbit at the prescribed nine-minute mark.

Stringham-Shepherd held a cigar and glass of whiskey. Her cheeks were wet with tears. “Shep was beaming from ear-to-ear,” she said. “It was great to see him so excited. I was kind of bummed I couldn’t see the launch [because of fog] but maybe I can get back here for the next one.”

The next Soyuz scheduled to fly to the ISS will deliver a docking compartment on a 2001 launch—five more space station launches are scheduled through 2006. But the cosmodrome’s future lies not with the ISS, but in the booming telecommunications industry and its insatiable appetite for new satellites. Inside Energia’s processing facility, where Soyuz capsules and unmanned Progress resupply ships are prepared for the orbiting space station, workers also prepare Proton upper stages for commercial launch.

“We completely redesigned this building,” said Mikhail Malugin, who oversees Energia’s Soyuz, Proton and Progess preparation in this building. “It was used for the Buran program, but now we process Proton DM upper stages to deliver commercial satellites, and we are doing the final testing of Progress vehicles, including electrical and hydraulic systems.”

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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