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.....