Monday, December 24, 2012

A while back in Russia... Pt.2

  As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this adventure took place almost 18 years ago so some of the details have been forgotten and over the years the story has become a bit legendary leading to a bit of embellishment by the story teller, me. Fortunately I have photos to remind me of and correct some of the details that have changed over the years and I've got a wife that even remembers strange little details from this trip that I cannot even remember as she reminds me of them today.

  So today is the day we leave Moscow to fly to Kazakhstan. As I explained yesterday, Russia actually launches their missions from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan just as we launch our missions from Cape Canaveral in Florida. A bit of trivia for why we launch from Florida and the Russians travel all the way to Kazakhstan and the same reason the ESA, the European Space Agency launches from French Guiana in South America is because the closer you can launch near the equator, the better. Less fuel is needed because the earth is spinning faster at the equator than at the poles. Here's a LINK that describes this fact in more detail. Another interesting comparison between Russia's program and ours is how we launch from one location but control the mission from another. Our missions are controlled from Johnson Space Center in Houston and Russia controls their missions from Star City outside of Moscow. As you'll learn in this post, that's hardly the only thing the Russian's have in common with our space program.

  On to today's adventure. We leave our hotel early in the morning to make our flight for Kazakhstan and as we arrive at the airport I notice something strange. Our vehicle is ushered through back gates and taken straight out to the tarmac where our plane awaits us. I've always described this plane to friends as an old WWII type plane but now that I look through the photos I notice I've taken one photo of the plane as we were pulling up to it. It's obviously not an old WWII plane but the exact model is nothing I'm familiar with. Maybe some of my aircraft friends can identify this Aeroflot plane?
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Sorry about the trees...again, moving van.

  We get out of the van right by the plane and we are instructed that we must load our gear into the hold. This is a chartered military flight, not your regular commercial type of flight. So up the ladder we go and crawl around with the other people on our flight to cram our gear into every nook and cranny. It's amazing how much space is in there.....
Once on board we are given the two seats closest to the cockpit. On a normal flight this would be in first class but there's really not any difference between our seats and the back row. It is my first time to be seated facing the rear of the plane in flight. It's kind of a strange feeling at take off to feel like you are going to come out of your seat and fall into the lap of the person facing you. Didn't Southwest used to have flights like this with alternating rows facing each other? Seems like I remember flying like this again at a later time. Another tidbit I remember about the takeoff was there were mostly military people on the plane except for a small group of other Americans headed to Baikonur for the same reason as us. As we are taking off all of the American are seated and buckled in while there are Russians standing and walking in the isle talking to others. There was no safety instructions and nobody to tell them to sit down. Shortly after takeoff we are served lunch and I had Vladimir take this shot of Tom and I.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Check out that red-headed mullet that Tom was sporting! Of course we are both sporting our stylish fanny packs. What was I thinking?!

  After lunch we got up and walked around and introduce ourselves to the other Americans on the flight. I wish I had kept in touch with those guys because I remember we exchanged phone numbers and for those that had them, email addresses. I remember a few netscape.com and compuserve.com addresses on that list. I didn't have an email or even own a computer at that time....hard to believe.

After being in the air for an hour or so I looked out our window and noticed something strange. We were still flying very low to the ground, probably around 1,500-2,000'. Not exactly skimming the trees but I was used to a normal commercial flight where we'd be cruising at 28-32,000' by this time so I asked our interpreter why we were flying so low. He gets up from his seat and walks into the cockpit to ask the pilot what's going on. (Imagine that happening today?) A minute or so later he returns and tells us the pilot is inviting us to come up front So Tom and I get up and go forward where the pilot introduces himself to us and he explains to us that the navigator (He points down between the pilot and co-pilot seats.) must see the railroad to get us to our destination. You see, it's a bit cloudy on this day so we are flying under the clouds and following a railroad track to Kazakhstan!
Eventually some of the other Americans are curious why we are standing in the cockpit doorway and one of the other Toms on this trip comes forward to see what's happening. If my memory serves me correctly he was also a pilot and aerospace guy so the pilot gets up from his seat and allows Tom to sit down and take the controls. That's when these two shots were taken.
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Tom, getting the lay of the land from the pilot.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
My first shot with my little film panoramic camera that I've brought along on this trip. Down in the center you can see the navigator sitting (Not laying on his stomach as I've somehow remembered this event.) in the nose of the plane.

  A few hours later (I really do not remember how long the flight was from Moscow to Kazakhstan.) and I notice outside our window a large Russian Hind helicopter is off our wingtip. You'll remember the type of helicopter that was in Red Dawn and  Rambo III. And outside our other wingtip I notice a MIG is flying as slowly as he can to keep from stalling. He's swaying back and forth just to maintain our speed but never the less, he's there. I ask our interpreter once again what's going on and he assures me nothing is wrong. Everything is ok. That is until I pull out my camera to take a photo and I'm immediately yelled at to NOT take any photos.
  Once we are safely on the ground it's explained to me that since we are flying into Kazakhstan, a free and independent country, there are sometimes rebels on the ground that like to take pop shots at the slow flying unarmed airplanes coming into the base. So the MIG and the Hind were just our insurance policy.....Yikes! What have you gotten me into Tom?!
  From the airport it's a surprisingly long drive across what looks to me like a desert but I later learn is the tundra, which is really just an arctic desert! As we near the entrance to the military installation we stop at the signpost below for a group shot. This is not our entire group of people but only the ones that were in our van.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Photo above show the base commander, our guide while on the base, myself, Chris, Tom (the pilot), John and Tom Conrad. Our interpreter, Vladimir took the photo. Not bad Vlad.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
That's me by myself in front of the entrance to the base.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Tom discusses what he would like to shoot with the base commander while Vladimir interprets.

  After settling down into our rooms we are instructed that there is NO running water so forget about showering or bathing the next four days. There will be two buckets of water by our door each morning. One is clean water for washing our hands and face with while the other you can tell is "not" so clean. It's used for gravity flushing the toilet so make the best of it.
I guess this would be the best place to tell of another forgotten bit that Penny reminded me about. Before leaving she gave me a small bottle of her perfume so I would have something to remember her by. I'm not sure if I requested this because I was so intoxicated by her smell or if she thought of it as some way of "marking her territory". Either way, by day three it sure came in handy. ;-)

  And speaking of days, it's been so long ago I really do not remember how many days we were in Kazakhstan. It was either four or five before returning back to Moscow so some of the events I describe may have taken place on multiple days even though I tell the story as though it were one.

 After lunch on base which consisted of a bowl of hot borscht with a boiled potato and a glass of vodka to wash it down we are taken for our base tour and our first stop is the Baikonur museum.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand ThagardRussia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Outside the museum.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Once inside we were treated to a personal tour of the entire history of the Russian space program beginning at the beginning with the actual Sputnik 1 backup satellite and a model of Sputnik 2 which famously carried the first living creature, a dog named Laika into space. Sadly it was a very different time and no arrangements were made for Laika's safe return to earth.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Inside the Yuri Gagarin room in the museum. It's the only separate room in the museum dedicated to an individual. Notice the model of the small green and white home at the bottom of the display. That is a model of Yuri's home on the base. It is still there and later we'll have a chance to go inside this place that is considered holy to many of Russia's people.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A plague and display dedicated to the Apollo-Soyuz program from 1975.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
That's me sitting in a mock-up of the ejection seat used by Yuri Gagarin after re-entry into the atmosphere. Many people do not realize that even though in future flights the Russians and Americans actually safely landed in their spacecrafts, the Russians on land and the Americans at sea, the earliest flights for the Russians involved the cosmonaut ejecting from the capsule because the earlier Vostok capsules had not been designed to slow down enough for a safe landing. Only later in the space program would heat shields and aerobraking come into play. Here's a LINK to more info on the controversy that stirred up back then.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
No, that's not me.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
But that is me climbing into a later Soyuz style capsule.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
And inside the capsule. Actually quite roomy considering all things.

Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
A photo that has been autographed by many of the cosmonauts from the 80's and 90's. I wonder what that would bring on eBay?
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The guest register in the museum that we were asked to sign.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Check out who signed the book the day before!
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
After leaving the museum we are taken by Yuri Gagarin's home on the base. We are told that since he was a national hero he was the only one that had private quarters, all other cosmonauts were relegated to the barracks along with the rest of the military personnel.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
Later that evening after a dinner of something that resembled meat and more vodka to wash it down we are taken back to Yuri's home for a private tour inside.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand ThagardRussia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
It really is like walking into hallowed ground as everything has been left the way it was prior to his death in 1968.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
We are told it's time to celebrate because it's the anniversary of something or somebody's death or some famous launch but really Tom and I know it's just an excuse for our guide to break out the vodka and have another drink.  Notice he's carrying a box of shot glasses... In all fairness, it was only a couple days after Yuri's birthday of March 9th or a week or so prior to the anniversary of his death on March 27th.

Tomorrow the real excitement begins as we get to tour the launch facilities and the press conference with the cosmonauts. Stay tuned.