It ain't pretty, but it sure does work.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
Lieutenant General Valeri Grin stood before the rocket and answered questions through an interpreter. Grin plays the role of both dove and hawk. He is the chairman of the intergovernmental commission that oversees launches in support of space operations, earlier aboard Mir and now aboard the International Space Station. He’s also deputy commander in chief of Russia’s strategic rocket forces. His world has changed much since he first came to Baikonur in 1970.
“The future of space is a global effort,” Grin said. “We have a very good relationship working with the Americans.” The International Space Station was topic A, but it was evident that Mir, which had been in space since 1986, commanded Grin’s loyalty and pride. When he was asked by a German Public Radio reporter how he would bid farewell to the now deserted station, he dropped his head and seemed, for the first time, to search for words. “You have done well,” he said finally. “You have served humanity. But now it is time for you to go.”
At the edge of the concrete pad, crowded with onlookers and soldiers watching the Soyuz being readied for launch, a woman stood alone, clad in jeans, sneakers, and a ski jacket. She gradually drew a small crowd of reporters and well-wishers. The booster, topped with the cramped capsule that would carry her husband, Bill Shepherd, into space rose until it was finally vertical. Beth Stringham-Shepherd certainly had a personal stake in the upcoming launch, but it was also her professional role as a lead NASA strength trainer and rehabilitation coach that had brought her to Baikonur.
This was no Kennedy Space Center—not a palm tree in sight, and only an unchanging landscape of desert scrub all the way to the horizon. “I’ve never been to White Sands [Missile Range], but I hear this place is like that,” Stringham-Shepherd said. “But I like the Russian traditions—taking flowers to [Yuri] Gagarin’s grave, the reception for the families of the crew—we don’t do any of that.” And would her husband follow one other tradition, stopping at a roadside spot to urinate where Gagarin had done the same thing on the way to the launch pad?
“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.