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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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.

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.

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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