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........