Leroy’s Launch

To watch a friend begin his expedition to the International Space Station, our correspondent travels to emptiest Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz lifts off on October 14, 2004, bound for the space station. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)
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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.

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.

About George C. Larson

George C. Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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