WHEN THE ALARM GOES OFF AT 3 A.M., it’s still ink-black outside, and the wind is audible through the window. Turn up the room thermostat to warm the blood, shower, dress, and head down to a brightly lighted dining room. The Sputnik hotel here in Baikonur, in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, is part of Starsem, a Russian-European consortium that provides Soyuz launch services to customers around the world. The hotel is modern, nicely appointed, European in style, and well run.
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After breakfast it’s time to head to the cosmodrome. This morning Leroy Chiao will launch from there with cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov to begin Expedition 10 to the International Space Station.
After boarding a big, Euro-style tour bus with huge windows and reclining seats, we leave Baikonur behind and drive through the darkest night there ever was, with no visible landmark, just diamond-hard points of light that could be a hundred miles across the steppe. The bus turns and a different beacon looms: a diesel locomotive’s headlight. Time and miles pass. Finally, dark buildings become barely visible in the murk, and we appear to be passing through some vast abandoned facility. The bus pulls into a yard with cars parked every which way. Mercury floods shed a metallic light in bright patches. A sign in Russian reads “Energia,” the company that operates Russia’s space program. Inside one of these buildings, Leroy has spent hours preparing for the flight, getting into his suit, and readying himself to meet a commission of state officials for a ritual pre-launch interview.
Along for the ride with Chiao and Sharipov, who hails from Kyrgyzstan, is Yuri Shargin, a Russian and relatively recent addition to the cosmonaut corps. He’ll go up with the Expedition 10 crew and, while Leroy and Salizhan settle in on the station, come back a few days later with the returning Expedition 9 crew. Rumors circulated that the Russians had sold the Soyuz’s third seat to a wealthy civilian but that he was either too big to fit in the capsule, too nervous and jittery, or involved in something shady. Whatever the reason, Shargin got his ticket.
On the bus we are waiting to view the official interview of the Expedition 10 crew. NASA representative Phil Cleary explains that we will be allowed to enter in small groups and that we should head for the left side of the room and make our way as far to the front as we can. It’s a mildly tense atmosphere; we have a feeling that we’re not terribly welcome here, that we’re testing the limits of some rule. We’re on Energia’s turf and we’re way down at the bottom of their list.
About a half-hour goes by as groups of five to seven are dispatched from the bus to disappear through a lighted doorway. Finally the last of us are sent in, and our group is met by a guy in a black leather jacket with a walkie-talkie. He holds up five fingers: Five of us may enter. Then another guy approaches us and holds up three fingers. This happens two or three more times with different guys and different numbers of fingers, but we still haven’t moved. Eventually a woman we recognize as one of NASA’s Russian staff gestures to us, and we follow her into the building to a room that’s jammed with Russian space agency officials, hangers-on, Energia customers, their sisters, their cousins, their aunts…. The mission crew is separated from the crowd by a large glass partition. We squirm between packed bodies to a rear corner of the room, where the crowd thins just enough to allow us to make our way forward along the wall. We can see the partition and hear the amplified voices of the state commission members. And finally, bodies part, and there he is: Leroy, seated to the left of Sharipov. Leroy’s smiling, but then it seems as if he’s always got a beatific grin. The commission members are wishing the crew a safe journey, and he’s nodding in reply.
I first heard of Leroy Chiao in 1989, when Air & Space/Smithsonian began developing a story about the selection process that astronaut candidates go through in Houston; the piece, published in the Apr./May 1990 issue, was entitled “The Class of 1990.” Leroy Chiao, Ellen Ochoa, and Bernard Harris were among the candidates portrayed, and we soon learned that the three had been among those selected that year to be astronauts. Chiao graciously agreed to give some talks to groups the magazine hosted at the National Air and Space Museum, and as we got to know him, we began to see why NASA had selected him.
He’s a chemical engineer with a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert in composite materials, besides being fluent in Mandarin and Russian. He worked on advanced materials at the Hexcel Corporation before moving on to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
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.