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 3 of 5)
A bus pulled up to transport us to a three-engine Tupolev Tu-154 operated by Karat Airlines. The -154 is a 1960s-era airliner resembling a Boeing 727. We clambered aboard and wedged into cramped seats, stuffing carry-ons into any crevice we could find. The old airplane complained mightily on its takeoff run, but once at cruise, the cabin was notably quiet. Soon green Russia gave way to the rusty red soil of Kazakhstan. An hour passed with no sign of civilization below, not even a road. When the airplane started its descent, I checked again and saw a pipeline—there’s oil in Kazakhstan.
The airport has one long runway and a small terminal building, and the Tupolev simply turned around at the end of its rollout and taxied back up the runway to parking. No taxiways. But then, there isn’t much traffic here either.
At our hotel in Baikonur, various groups made plans to walk downtown to a pizza restaurant. Toward evening, a rumor circulated that Leroy, housed next door, would be down to talk to all of us through a fence separating the two areas. Instead, his flight surgeon approached us whispering apologetically that about 10 minutes ago Leroy put his head on his pillow and seconds later was sleeping like a baby.
The Soyuz TMA manned transport spacecraft got the “A” in its model designation from the word “anthropometric.” If you’ve ever noticed that a lot of the early cosmonauts were on the compact side, it was because the Soyuz cabin is a tight fit. When the joint missions to space were planned, both the U.S. and Russian sides noticed that the Yanks tend toward the XL size. When ISS planners selected the Soyuz as the vehicle for rescuing station crews in an emergency, the Russians had to move stuff around to make room. At the same time, landing velocity was reduced and the custom-fitted seats that cushion the landing impact were made cushier. The rescue Soyuz docked to the station is replaced at regular intervals because its systems gradually deteriorate. Replacements carry crews up, and the old Soyuz vehicles return crews to Earth, along with trash from the station, which burns up in the portion of the spacecraft that is jettisoned on the return flight.
A Kurs radar system provides for automatic docking, but the craft has a system that enables complete manual control, and the crew members spend a lot of time learning how to operate it. The training would pay off for Chiao and Sharipov. The spacecraft is a stack of three modules: the orbital module on top, the descent module beneath it, and the service module—with propellant, instruments, and electronics—at the bottom. Sharipov is commander of the Soyuz, and Leroy would take over as commander once they began the ISS mission. With each crew change, the ISS mission command changes too, alternating between astronauts and cosmonauts.
The booster they’ll be riding is a Soyuz FG rocket. Four lateral assemblies, each with a four-nozzle RD-107A engine and propellant tanks, create a flared skirt at the base of the vehicle. These separate laterally and leave a central stage with one engine, which continues to burn. A third stage is built around a four nozzle RD-110 engine. All stages run on kerosene and liquid oxygen, and the four main nozzles on each engine are fixed. Smaller steering nozzles, pointed by hydraulic actuators, direct thrust in order to maintain control. Leroy’s Soyuz has been hauled like freight to its launch pad on a railroad car in an unceremonious crawl and now stands upright just a few miles from here, awaiting fueling.
After the mob scene with the commission, the crew is scheduled to walk out to a bus and head for the launch pad. It is said that on his way to the launch that made him the first man to fly in space, Yuri Gagarin stopped to relieve himself, so it has become traditional for all crews to follow suit. Our own bus, too far behind on the bumpy road to the pad for us to witness the traditional pause in transit, eventually lurches into a densely packed unpaved parking lot.
Above us, dozens of spotlight arrays bathe the rocket in brilliant white. Incandescent light bulbs on the scaffold around the rocket glow like amber gems, lending the scene the ambiance of an amusement park. As the crew members step off the bus, officials swarm them, wishing them well and patting them on the butt the way athletes do. The riotous and energetic celebration could not be more different from the relatively sterile atmosphere on the pad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center before a shuttle launch.