Friday, December 28, 2012

A while back in Russia.... Pt.6

  As I mentioned yesterday, you've now followed me on this journey reliving my adventure from almost eighteen years ago. It has truly brought back many fond memories and I hope I got most of the facts correct as well as my memory can place them. It was really fun not just scanning the images from the photo album but also digging up the souvenirs that were brought back from this once in a life time trip. It was cool to sort through the old papers, rocket caps and covers, shuttle tiles and of course that fancy and stylish Ushanka hat that's now too small for my big head.
Luckily I had Penny around to add her memories and correct me on several points.

  I also mentioned yesterday that there was one other thing that we did while on this trip that was almost as cool as witnessing the launch but first we had to get a decent lunch. And what better place to go for lunch in Moscow then McDonalds! Seriously, it was the best food we had on this trip only because it reminded me of home a bit.
Stitched Panorama
I'll have the Четверть фунта с сыром or the Биг Мак Please!
Yes, I brought the tray paper mat home with me.....


  Now on to the more serious part of the trip, still in Star City we were able to take a tour of the training facilities and get yet another glimpse of the behind the scenes workings in the Russian space program.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard

Standing at the entrance to the Star City training facility.

One of the first locations we are taken to is the large area where they have a full scale model of the MIR Space Station that is used for training the cosmonauts.

 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Here is the model. I think I was most impressed with the wood steps and railing. Very nice work.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
This appears to be the docking module where the Soyuz spacecraft would dock to the MIR.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Just before leaving this area we notice three men walking up the stairs and if my memory serves me correctly we were told they are the three U.S. astronauts that will be docking with MIR aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-71. I'm fairly sure the gentleman on the right was shuttle commander Robert Gibson but the other two I can identify from online images.
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Our next stop is the centrifuge room where the cosmonauts are trained to handle the G's during liftoff and reentry.

  And finally we are given a tour of the museum where many of the original space capsules are on display. This is where I had the chance to experience something almost as cool as the launch.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
We are taken down this line of old space capsules and our translator begins to explain to us the significance of each one.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
We come to this one first and it's obvious by the writing and plagues that is was the capsule used during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July, 1975
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
And finally, for me, probably the coolest part of the trip. I was allowed to actually cross the barrier, look into and lean against Yuri Gagarin's capsule. This is the actual spacecraft that the first human went into space aboard. Even more amazing to me is immediately after taking this photo I notice my right hand and jacket sleeve are covered in what appears to be soot. This craft hasn't been wiped down proably since it was placed here and I've now got the charred remnants of Yuri's spacecraft on my hands. Sadly I had to wash them later.....
Just look at this craft and you have to me amazed. A human being actually rode this into orbit atop a rocket and then reentered the atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour. Looking at the bottom you can see where the heating burned away till it turned white from the flames of reentry.

And THAT is the end of this adventure. I hope everyone enjoyed it. Feel free to leave comments below.

Also, here's a few miscellaneous images of some of the souvenirs I returned home with and still have to this day.
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A couple of brochures from Mission Control

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Front and back of a medal commemorating the mission.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
That traditional Russian Ushanka hat. Still the warmest thing I've ever put on my head. With our normal winters here my head would boil after only a few minutes wearing this thing.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A few pieces of the decaying concrete from the launch pad. I still can't believe I took these.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The caps and covers picked up at the launch pad as souvenirs. I Actually carried with me for many years the shiny pin at the bottom of this image. One day I thought I had lost it and found it many months later under my truck seat. After that it's been kept safe.

And as Porky Pig would say... Th..Th.That's all folks.










Thursday, December 27, 2012

A while back in Russia... Pt.5

  So this is it, the moment of truth, launch day and everyone is so excited. The day starts with ringside seats for the entire ceremony that takes place outside one of the main buildings. Everyone here in the states has seen the scene  where the astronauts exit the building and board a bus to be taken out to the launch pad. Well, Russia has a very similar scene where the cosmonauts exit a building and are greeted by the base commander.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Each cosmonaut receives a salute.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
They then board a bus to be taken to the launch pad.

  At this point all of the media board buses to be taken to our viewing area for lift off. As we pull away from the ceremony location you can see the launch pad and awaiting rocket off in the distance and amazingly enough we are driving towards it. The bus makes a turn and stops near another building and our view is temporarily blocked. We leave the bus and begin to follow the others until we arrive at an area where we are told we will be observing the launch. This is where I let out a bit of nervous laughter because my first thought is they are pulling a prank on us. We are WAY TOO close to the launch pad to be standing here for lift off.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
It's hard to describe just how close we are and I'm a horrible judge of distance but this one photo I took of Tom shows the rocket in the background and just how close we were during this event. If I had to guess I would say we are just over a mile from the pad.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Another shot to show just how close we are. Even though there is nothing in the shot to show scale, I can tell you the image was shot with a 35mm camera using a 210mm lens and was NOT cropped. For the photogs out there you'll now understand my bit of nervous laughter.

During the actual launch I was unable to shoot any stills and for what reason I cannot remember. I was either shooting the video for Tom or assisting him in some other way. Fortunately, our small group of Americans exchanged contact info and one of them, I believe Tom Usciak from Pennsylvania, was taking photos with a really nice Hasselblad rig and he sent me the following images from liftoff.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Photo Credit ©1995 Tom Usciak
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Photo Credit ©1995 Tom Usciak
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Photo Credit ©1995 Tom Usciak

Just seconds after liftoff you can see that the flame extends the same length of the rocket itself.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Photo Credit ©1995 Tom Usciak

There are a couple things I distinctly remember about the liftoff. The noise, my gosh it was loud. Another thing I remember is that we were close enough to actually feel it warm up a few degrees during the launch. I am still amazed to this day that we observed the launch so close to the pad. Another thing that I remember very well is during liftoff I expected the rocket to rise a bit in the sky and then sort of tip over a bit and head for the horizon. Anyone that's seen the shuttle launch knows it does a little twist immediately after clearing the tower and then shortly after that point it seems to turn out to sea and head in an eastward directions. The Soyuz rocket seemed to go perfectly straight up until it almost disappeared before finally appearing to turn a bit and head to the east. I distinctly remember when we were shooting the video the camera was on the tripod and as it rose and we tilted up to follow it we quickly reached a point where the camera could no longer tilt up so we had to actually tip the tripod back on two legs to keep the rocket in frame. I know this took Tom and I by surprise and I'm sure others that were shooting video on tripods at the launch ran into the same problem.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Minutes after liftoff and the rocket is now well out of site I turn around to see Bonnie Dunbar, the backup American cosmonaut standing around all smiles and talking to folks.

A short time later we are told we are making a trip out to the launch pad to inspect the site up close. If we get there soon enough there may still be some souvenirs to pick up. If you remember as the rocket is first erected at the launch pad there are many lines and hoses that must be attached to the rocket for various purposes. Well, while the rocket is being assembled and transported to the site all of these connection points have caps and covers over them to keep out dust. When everything is being connected these caps are removed and dropped on the ground. After the flight people, usually the young military kids have a tradition of collecting them as souvenirs so that is what we are going to hunt down now.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Standing at the base of the launch tower probably ninety minutes after liftoff with the rest of the American group. Can you tell I'm freezing?   Wearing jeans and a pair of gray sweat pants and up top I had a t-shirt underneath that red turtleneck and my leather jacket.  The really scarey thing is that as I sit here and write this entry I am wearing the exact same gray sweat pants! In all fairness they had been stored on a shelve for many years and only recently have I worn them in many, many years.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Tom, hard at work looking for the next shot.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Standing near the edge of the flame trench with the launch tower behind me. When the rocket launches it is actually suspended over an opening that deflects the flames horizontally out of the large dark tunnel entrance you see behind me. This entire lower area is sprayed with huge amounts of water to suppress the heat and sound from the rocket.
Maybe that's why we had no water to flush our toilets...it was all being diverted to the flame trench??
Notice what appears to be large rocks on the ground near me. That is actually large chunks of the concrete trench that are pealing away with each successive launch. Besides the various caps and covers I retrieved around the launch site I also brought home a few small "chucks" of the concrete from the platform.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Looking back down the flame trench from the upper edge of the launch platform. You can see a little bit of the water that was not burned away during the launch has already frozen in the lower portion of the shot just right of center.

  So now it's time for us to depart the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and head for Moscow and Star City to Mission Control and the docking with MIR that will take place two days later. I'm not sure if we left the same day as the launch or the following but from here we will skip that time and jump two days forward to Star City and Mission Control.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The huge Mission Control room where all of the flight is controlled. Again it seems to have a very "NASA" feel to it except for the writing of course. Not to offend any Russians but the writing on the ticker tape at the top of the image sort of reminds me of what happens to an LCD device when the batteries are about to go dead and the display scrambles up the characters. I really wish I knew how to read the writing because I have several documents from this trip and would really love to know what they say. Anyone out there understands Russian and would care to translate a few documents, please leave a comment below.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Down on the floor of Mission Control and I remember we got in trouble for using the flash on this shot. NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY!
I so wanted to sit down at the computer there in front of me and press a few buttons....
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A closeup shot of one of the big screens and you can see that the image is from a camera aboard the Soyuz capsule and they are closing in on the MIR Space Station in the distance.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Another angle that shows MIR a little better.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
In this shot taken a while later you can see the same camera view but they have either just docked with MIR or are so close that nothing but the docking module shows in the frame.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
That's their "happy face". So glad the docking was successful and everyone is safe.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Later after the hatches are opened and aboard MIR you can see an image on the screen that shows four people. The upper left appears to be a woman cosmonaut that was already aboard MIR and the three other men are our guys with Dr. Norman Thagard in the lower right.

That's pretty much the gist of the trip. If you care to stick around for one more day I do still have a few more images from Star City and the training facility and thoughts about the experience to share with my faithful followers.  In fact, I have one experience that for me ranked up almost as high as witnessing this historic event.  Till then.....




Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A while back in Russia... Pt.4

Before we get to the photos of the rocket roll out today you may remember I hinted yesterday at a conversation with a gentleman that took part in the Russian version of the Apollo program. As many may remember the space race in the sixties between the U.S. and Russia was very heated and the Russians were trying very hard to get to the moon before us. They had already beaten us in the race for 1st in space and 1st woman in space as well as several other records and getting to the moon 1st was their goal too.
So here we are at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and we are introduced to a man that we are told was part of that race. He was actually one of the scientist working very hard to get Russia to the moon before we did. The Russian Zond (Apollo) spacecraft was to be launched aboard an N1 (Saturn V) rocket. Just as the rest of our space programs had many similarities, so did the race to the moon. The Russians planned to have a manned orbiter craft while other cosmonauts descended to the surface much like our program. One of the differences in the mission was explained to us this day by this gentleman whose name I cannot remember. To understand a bit about what he explained to us you have to understand the launch sequence a bit. I hope I get these details correct as I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm the slightest bit wrong. After liftoff but while in earth orbit the lunar lander and orbiting spacecraft would undock from each other and do a bit of a ballet in orbit, turning around repositioning themselves so that the top of the command module would dock to the top of the lunar module. Take a look at this diagram and you can see just how the command module, service module and lunar lander module are packed into the top of the Saturn V rocket. After the two were successfully docked once again they would blast out of orbit and head to the moon where they would once again undock and the lunar lander would descend to the surface. In the mean time the command module would orbit the moon while (In the case of Apollo 11) Neil & Buzz would land and get all the glory. Michael Collins was the odd man out and left in the command module in lunar orbit.
So this man explains to us that one difference in the two programs was the Russians planned to blast off from earth and fly directly to the moon. Once in lunar orbit they would do the undocking-docking maneuver instead of doing it in earth orbit.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
As he is explaining this to us he is drawing it out on this piece of paper. Immediately after he finished explaining it to us I asked him if I could have the paper and he signed and dated it for me. That's March 11, 1995 not November 3rd.

  Now it's time to tell you about the experience of watching the Russians roll out the Soyuz-U2 rocket to the launch pad. One of the things I learned about the Russian program is they don't waste much time getting things done. With our space program the rocket or shuttle would be rolled out to the launch pad many days ahead of the actual launch. With the Russians and the harsh weather conditions they wait till just a couple days before the launch and go for it. It seems as though almost nothing will delay a launch for these guys. The morning of the roll out we are awakened well before dawn and told to prepare for the cold. That's an understatement. The temps this morning are well below freezing and the winds are kicking up too so that's not helping anything. Just at daybreak we are taken to a spot along a railroad track and dropped off. The track makes a very slight arc from the Southwest to the east in front of us and in the Southwest is a large hanger maybe a half mile from our location. To the east is the launch pad and we are lined up just a few feet from the track when you can hear a noise coming from the hanger as the large bay doors open.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Our first view of the huge Soyuz-U2 rocket coming our way.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
As it nears us you can see the Russian "Enterprise" still sits lonely in the weeds off in the distance.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
As the rocket nears us we really get an idea of just how large this rocket really is. Nothing compared to the size of the Saturn V rockets but still very impressive. Having never witnessed a Saturn V launch I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been considering it is three times the size of this huge machine in front of us now.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
As the rocket passes directly in front of us we notice a few stowaways....
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
And as it passes and we near the top of the rocket I notice a feature that has puzzled me ever since this day that I have never been able to find an explanation for. Notice just to the right of the round symbol there appears to be a large grated platform that is folded up next to the body of the rocket. In fact you can see that there are four circling the rocket body. I have always assumed that these are some sort of maintenance platforms that fold down and are used during setup at the launch pad but would be removed prior to launch. That is NOT the case though. As you will see in tomorrow's post, during the launch these grated "platforms" are still clearly attached during launch. So they obviously serve some purpose during the launch. Hopefully someone can answer this riddle that has puzzled me for many years.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The rocket passes us on its journey to the launch pad a couple of miles from this point

  Today's trivia bit. Many are aware of the huge crawler that NASA uses to transport the shuttle and other rockets to the launchpad. It is called the crawler for a reason. It moves at a blistering pace of about .8 miles per hour. With this system that the Russians use the train moves at a good pace. In fact it took a very quick walk or slow jog to keep up with the transporter as it passed us.
  Another interesting bit about his particular morning was the temperature outside. It was so cold I was scared at one point that I had received frostbite on several fingertips. To operate my film camera and the video camera I had to remove my gloves to feel the controls. Unfortunately I left the gloves off for too long and lost feeling in several fingers on my right hand. They also started to turn a pale blueish color that did not go away for quite a while. I do remember being quite scared over this at the time. I even remember Tom remarking that the tripod head was freezing and would not tilt or pan. That's COLD!
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The transporter nears the launch pad just after sunrise begins to warm the chill out of the air.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The launch pad facility awaits the arrival of the Soyuz-U2 Rocket.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Just minutes after arriving at the launch pad and before we can reposition ourselves for a better angle with the rising sun, they begin to erect the rocket on the pad.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Before we know it the rocket is standing tall and workers are already beginning to connect lines to begin the fueling and countdown process.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
My last three shots up close at the launch pad before we are forced to leave the area. I guess it's a little dangerous when they start fueling this thing. I'm styling it pretty nice in that hat ain't I?
And I just checked and I still have the hat! I tried it on and it doesn't seem to fit any longer. Either it has shrunk or my head has gotten bigger. No comments from the cheap seats....

  Tomorrow, the launch and our trip back to Moscow where we visit Star City and witness the docking with the MIR space station on the big screens at mission control. Till then........


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A while back in Russia...Pt.3

 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Today's adventure starts out with a view from the hotel/barracks window as I woke on this very cold morning. I'm not sure if they are ice fishing or simply retrieving the water buckets so we can flush our toilets....
The agenda today is is to attend a press conference with the cosmonauts and media that are present for the launch and then we'll be off to take a tour of all of the launch facilities and hangers.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The media frenzy at the press conference with the cosmonauts as everyone is jockeying for the best angle as they enter the room on the other side of the glass window. At this point the cosmonauts are under quarantine since the launch is only a couple days away.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Research Cosmonaut Dr. Norman Thagard, Commander Vladimir Nikolayevich Dezhurov, and Flight Engineer Gennadi Mikhailovich Strekalov.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard 
In this shot backup cosmonauts Flight Engineer Nikolai Mikhailovich Budarin and American Research Cosmonaut Bonnie Dunbar are seated to the left of the primary crew.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The obligatory "thumbs up" from the crew.

After the press conference it was time for lunch which I honestly don't remember but I'm sure it consisted of borscht and possibly some unidentifiable meat along with a shot of vodka to wash it down with. With lunch over with it was time to go on the launch pad tours so we piled into the van and headed out. This place really is a sprawling complex with many roads and intersections that appeared to lead to nowhere.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
If my crude notes from the time are correct, this is the roadside marker indicating the turnoff to launchpad 1 or Yuri Gagarin's launch pad.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The roadside marker and launch pad for the Proton "Heavy-Lift" rockets.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia's VAB or Vertical Assembly Building.
But why you may ask would Russia need a VAB if they transport their rockets to the launchpad by rail in a horizontal configuration? Well, you may remember yesterday that I hinted the Russia space program had many similarities to ours. They also had a space shuttle program very, very, some would say eerily similar to ours.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Just looking at the roadside marker you might think we have been magically transported back to Florida but the answer is NO, we are still in Kazakhstan and this is the launch site for Russia's Buran space shuttle.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
On our drive up to one of the buildings I spot this just sitting out in an open field. I learn that this is the mock-up to their shuttle that only flew in the atmosphere to test aerodynamics. Again, very similar to our program and the shuttle Enterprise that only flew from the back of the 747 as a test model.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
As we near the facility the immense size of this building becomes more apparent. Outside sits the crawler that transported the shuttle Buran to the launch pad several miles away.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
We are given an opportunity to jump up on the crawler and pose for a photo. At this point I realize just how sad this portion of their program has become. The crawler sits outside along with their "Enterprise" exposed to the harsh tundra weather and it is clearly taking its toll. Rust can be seen forming at every rivet and joint.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Once inside the huge building we are treated to a really up close an personal tour of the one actual Buran Space Shuttle that has flown in space.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Hey that's me standing under the shuttle! Even inside this hanger it was freezing cold. I have never experienced cold like I did on this trip and that includes standing atop Kilimanjaro! Of course I wasn't nearly as prepared for this trip as you can see I'm wearing jeans and a relatively lightweight leather jacket instead of snow pants and gortex. But what's a good ol' Louisiana boy supposed to know about winters, right? But at least I had my stylish Ushanka hat and I kept the flaps tied down over my ears. 

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A closeup under the wing area showing a few missing tiles. My first thought was that these were tiles that came off during flight but looking over the shuttle I began to notice quite a few tile missing that surely would have caused serious problems if they had fallen off before re-entry.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A shot of the rear landing gear area. Notice all the tiles missing.

  As we were wrapping up our incredible tour of the shuttle hanger we began to file out a hallway and I noticed everyone gathering around a table where a couple women were seated. On the table they had two stacks of shuttle tiles. One stack of white tiles and one stack of the carbon black tiles used on the more sensitive underside of the shuttle. Amazingly enough these two women were SELLING them to anyone interested. I picked up one and examined it closely and a few of us talked about whether or not they were legitimate.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The consensus of our group seemed to believe they were the real deal so of course I had to make a purchase. I believe the going rate was $10 for the white tiles, $20 for the black tiles or $25 for one of each.  I'll take one of each please!

On a very sad note, while doing a bit of research for this blog entry I learned that back in 2002 the building shown here that was housing the Buran Shuttle collapsed and completely destroyed the shuttle and killed seven workers as well.

  As similar to our shuttle as it may be on the surface seem there were some striking differences to our program. Notably is the fact that their shuttle only flew once into orbit and it was unmanned during that flight. Also, the engines that can be seen on the rear of the shuttle were NOT used as additional lift sources during launch. They were only used during orbit for maneuvering and de-orbit burns to bring the shuttle back into the atmosphere. Also, you may be familiar with the large external tank on our shuttle that is orange in color. That tank provided fuel to the shuttle engines for liftoff. On the Buran version that large center tank is feeding fuel to large rocket motors at the bottom of that tank.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
I believe this is the business end of the Buran main rocket or what we consider to be the external fuel tank.

  Before leaving you for the day I'll give you another bit of trivia. If you remember the very first and second launch of our space shuttle the large center fuel tank matched the other components in paint scheme being solid white. Starting with the third flight though it became the more familiar rusty orange color. Ever wondered why the change in color? Weight! The rusty orange color was the natural color of the insulation on the tank and it was originally painted white not for aesthetics but because NASA believed there would be UV damage to the insulation because of the amount of time it would be exposed to sunlight on the launch pad. After it was determined the sun would not cause any damage they decided to leave off the paint because it required over 600lbs of paint to cover the entire tank. By leaving the paint off they could carry an extra 600lbs of payload or simply save the money because it was estimated to cost approximately $23,000 for every pound put into orbit.

  Tomorrow we get to witness the roll out of our Soyuz rocket to the launch pad and you'll hear about an interesting conversation with a gentleman that was actually working on the Russian "Apollo" program in the race to the moon.  Stay tuned!