To watch a friend begin his expedition to the International Space Station, our correspondent travels to emptiest Kazakhstan.
- By George C. Larson
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
(Page 2 of 5)
When Leroy went shopping for an airplane, he and I exchanged e-mails; he settled on a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger, a 180-horsepower, four-seat, single-engine light plane like one I’d owned. He bought a house in a suburban Houston airport community, where he counted among his neighbors Dave Brown, a fellow astronaut who was later lost on the shuttle Columbia, and airshow performer and writer Debbie Gary (see “Along for the Launch,” below).
Leroy made his first spaceflight in 1994 on the STS-65 mission aboard Columbia; the crew set a record for spaceflight duration: 15 days. STS-72, flown in 1996, provided his first extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk; the two EVAs he made on the mission gave him a total time outside of almost 13 hours. But the high point of his astronaut career, he says, was in 2000 on STS-92, when a crew of seven commanded by Brian Duffy installed key elements of the International Space Station, including the Z1 Truss and Pressurized Mating Adapter 3.
Leroy wrote me an e-mail about that mission: “As we drifted away from the station, we watched it, with the Earth in the background. We could see the Z1 Truss with the Ku antenna [for streaming data to the ground] deployed and the PMA underneath. We had installed and connected all of that equipment flawlessly. What a great sense of relief and accomplishment! We were the last crew onboard, before the launch of the first ISS crew, two weeks later. We had left the station in perfect shape, in exactly the configuration that it was supposed to be in, all ready for them.”
Leroy had invited me to two previous launches that I couldn’t make. Last summer he once again invited me to watch him depart for space, this time from Baikonur cosmodrome, and I thought the third time could be the charm. After I agreed to go, NASA staff in Houston sent me various scary medical advisories about all the diseases, insects, parasites, and fungi that could beset a Westerner in Kazakhstan. But the big worry was the visa.
You need a visa to get into Russia, of course, and NASA was kind enough to handle that exercise. I filled in the paperwork, sent it to a nice lady at the Houston center, and sat back and waited. And waited. Finally, the day before I was supposed to depart, a NASA courier met me in the elevator lobby outside our office suite and handed me the visa with my passport.
We arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in rain. Passengers on Delta’s Flight 30 from New York deplaned in lethargic disorder, clutching immigration forms and customs declarations, and slogged for a hundred yards past empty halls until we ended up in a cavern-like grotto, where immigration officers in glass-walled booths would examine our paperwork. It’s a humorless process. Russians have had more than their share of terrorism’s violence, and the look the officer shot me after peering at my photo stifled any urge to make cheery small talk.
Outside, NASA astronauts Nicole Stott and Kevin Ford, here to escort Leroy’s invitees, were waiting in the crowd with a handwritten sign, and they spotted me instantly. (I would learn quickly that Americans stand out starkly here.)
After a few days in Moscow spent adapting to the eight-hour time change, we were joined for the flight to Kazakh-stan by a group of high-ranking NASA officials from Houston and Washington led by deputy administrator Fred Gregory. At a security baggage inspection station at the gate, a female inspector X-raying carry-on bags detected a pair of scissors in one and proceeded to ream out its owner in a voice that carried through the whole gate area. These people do not mess around.