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 4 of 5)
The first light of day reveals high clouds and good weather for the launch, which is scheduled for 9:06 a.m. Because the Soyuz capsule does not have the steering capacity of the shuttle, it must be launched at a precise time in order to rendezvous with the space station. With about a half-hour before liftoff, we clamber aboard the bus again and head out to the observation site, which is surprisingly close to the slim little Soyuz, perhaps half a mile away.
The Russian words coming over a loudspeaker are indecipherable to me as the crowd spills over and around the viewing site, finding perches everywhere among the bleachers. Then, as the voice on the loudspeaker counts down in Russian, we see a flicker of light at the pad and some smoke as an umbilical swings away from the rocket. The sound takes a couple of seconds to reach us; then the roar turns to a crackle as the engines come up to full thrust, which takes a few more seconds. The hold-downs release and the Soyuz rises on a flame as bright as the sun. A plume of translucent light, blue and orange, like a huge veil as long as the rocket is tall, flickers and dances beneath the brilliant white hot spot. This really is the sports car of space vehicles. Look how fast it’s accelerating, I’m thinking; I have to force myself to remember that Leroy is aboard this thing, which is now, after maybe a minute, way up there, just a dot. He’s on his way, and the track begins to arc away from us. People are hooting and cheering, and then I can’t see a rocket anymore; I can only hear it and see its trail of white vapor.
Two days later we arrived in early morning darkness at the mission control center in the village of Korolev. In the control room a handful of technicians presided over banks of computers, and on one of the screens, we could make out the blurry image of the station getting closer. It’s hard to say exactly when we began to sense that something wasn’t right. Although there was never any excitement in the control room, we gradually became aware that the station seemed to be getting closer rather quickly. Too quickly.
Then the station receded on the screen. Within minutes, NASA officials reported that the closing velocity had been too high and that Sharipov switched from the automatic docking mode to manual, backed off, and then flew the Soyuz to a successful docking. A week later an Energia official explained that one of the Soyuz’s thrusters was functioning at only 30 percent of its rated thrust while, at the same time, a control system that measures acceleration had malfunctioned, together producing the incorrect high closing rate. An alarm had tripped at about 50 yards, he said.
Once the docking was completed, it was only minutes until video from inside the station showed the three Soyuz crew members floating through the open hatch. Leroy would be up there for six months.
Sidebar: Along for the Launch
As Leroy, Salizhan, and Yuri walk from the crew bus to their spacecraft, we stand nearby, close enough to see Leroy grin through his bubble-faced helmet. The morning is black and cold, and the rocket is lit up like a tower in a prison yard. We watch them climb the ladder up to a platform at the rocket's side, as if they are going over the wall. We are left behind, intoxicated by the privilege of being here and a little envious of their imminent kick-in-the-pants ride, the stomach jolt of weightlessness, and their god’s-eye view of Earth.
I met Leroy Chiao a few years ago, the day I moved into a house across the runway from his in an airpark near Houston. He and a friend came by to welcome me to the neighborhood. He was already slotted for a mission to command the space station and had spent a lot of time training in Russia. It was wonderful there, he said, and he loved the people.