Sunday, December 23, 2012

A while back in Russia....

  Every once in a while I have the pleasure of working with one or our union's best audio guys, Ed Johnson. And every time we see each other he always ask me when I'm gonna get my photos from my trip to Russia online so he can see them. It's been so long I really can't even remember how he found out about this trip as it took place many years before I even met Ed. Obviously the subject of astronomy or the space program came up at work one day and I bragged about the trip. At this point I don't remember if I brought the photo album to work and shared it with him or if I just told him the stories about the adventure. I'm sure if it's the later then by now he probably thinks I made it all up. So with the holidays upon us and work a bit slow I finally decided to take the time to scan the photos and share my once in a lifetime adventure with everyone. Some of you, my closest friends, have heard about the trip but maybe not seen the photos so here's your chance to relive the story with me once again.

  Here's the synopsis of the trip. March, 1995, American astronaut Normand Thagard was the first American to be launched by Russia to the Russian space station MIR. I happen to be lucky enough to witness the event in person, up close!

  You'll have to forgive me if I get some of these details wrong or some of the facts that I remember are inaccurate but it has been almost 18 years. Just ask my wife how bad my memory is and she'll be happy to tell you I can't remember what I did last week.....

  This story actually begins a few months prior to March, 1995. Some time around August or September of 1994 I am working a job at the Superdome in New Orleans. It's an auto show for Nissan or Toyota, I really don't remember which one. It's one of those new model reveals for the dealers so they are showing off the 1995 models and I'm running handheld camera. It's a brutal show with tons of rehearsals and tons of downtime as well. Just a couple months prior to this job is when Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 plowed into Jupiter leaving visible spots on the cloud tops of the planet. I happen to witness this event through my telescope. So during this job at one of our breaks I'm sharing my experience with some of the guys and telling them about my telescope and such. One of the crew members, Tom Conrad, that I never knew before this job approaches me and ask me about my interest in astronomy. I explain to him it's been a big hobby of mine for years and he proceeds to tell me that he's going to Russia the following year to shoot video of the first American astronaut to be launched to the MIR space station. To be honest, he comes off a bit cocky and I'm really not sure what to think of his boasting about this project. But needless to say I'm intrigued as he explains that he plans to take a second person along and he ask me if I'm interested? Are you kidding me? How much will I have to PAY YOU to go on this trip? Oh no, he's willing to pay ME! Even better. So this auto show job ends and Tom and I exchange contact info and he says he'll be in touch soon so we can work out the details for the trip. At this point I'm on cloud 9 I am so excited.

  Days go by and turn into weeks and eventually weeks turn into months and it's now sometime around January, 1995 and I have long forgotten about Tom and his boasting about going to Russia when one day the phone rings. It's Tom. "Hey Greg, you still interested in going to Russia with me?" Holy crap, stuff just got real! He tells me I'm gonna need to get my passport and he'll take care of the visa application. So I start the passport process and put a rush on it because Tom needs my passport number for the visa. I'm not sure what the cost was but I remember thinking it was expensive for the rush processing so everything better go through OK. Besides, I've got a new girlfriend at this point and the freelance world sucks! A couple weeks later I have my new passport in hand and contact Tom with the info he needs and everything is progressing nicely. Around the first of February Penny and I decide to move in with each other so everything is going great in my world. I've got a beautiful new girlfriend and I'm getting ready to leave her for half a month in our new home..... ;-)  About two weeks prior to leaving for the trip I get a call from Tom and he's got bad news. I don't remember all the details but I believe he says he can't get permits to bring two camera's on the trip, only one. He's not sure if he's going to need me! Really! Are you f-ing kidding me? Another day or two goes by and I hear from Tom again. Good news, I'm going but still only one camera. He'll be the primary shooter and I'll just be his grip to carry the tripod and gear around. We meet a few days before departure to go over gear and make sure everything is set. He's got an Ikegami Betacam, Miller tripod, 4x Anton Bauer brick batteries & charger, assorted mics and cables and 3x cases of BetaSP tapes. Just our camera gear is quite a load so he's glad I'm coming along. Of course I ask if I can bring my film still camera too and he says yes. It's my trusty Canon A-1 and I'm bringing my 50mm standard lens and my 70-210mm lens along with eight rolls of film. I realize the 210mm lens is not going to be much reach for the launch if it's anything like the NASA launches in Florida where you stand 5-8 miles from the launch pad but it's all I have at the time.

  So here it is, departure day and my new girlfriend Penny is taking us to the airport. We pick up Tom at his house and he is frantically looking for something he cannot leave without. Of course I don't remember this but Penny reminded me of this detail last night when we were discussing the event. See, I told you she remembers EVERYTHING.....

  We're off, first stop is JFK in New York before boarding Finnair to Helsinki, Finland. I should stop at this point and explain that since this was 1995 and digital cameras didn't exist at the time, I'm limited to eight rolls of film with 36 exposures each so unlike a trip today where I would fire off hundreds of shots along the way, at this point we are in the airport in Helsinki and I take my first photo. And the only reason I take this image is because I'm still shaking from having just landed in this fog.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
When we landed, you couldn't see the ground from our window!

  We have a quick layover of a couple hours in Helsinki before heading to Moscow so I make the first call home to Penny to let her know we are almost there. Currency exchange and pay phones at the Helsinki airport I remember being a challenge. Today's cell phones make life so much easier.

  A few hours later and and we are on the ground in Moscow. I must say it seems a bit strange to be greeted by young military men (boys really) carrying AK-47's in the airport. We are met by our interpreter, Vladimir, who will be with us our entire time on this trip and he assist us in getting our bags and getting through customs. Our gear is thoroughly searched and we are repeatedly asked questions about what we are doing in the country. Fortunately Tom and Vladimir are able to answer the questions to his satisfaction and we are on our way to the hotel. Boy is it cold outside. Remember, at this point I'm living in New Orleans and grew up in Louisiana so I've never really experienced winter they way they do here.

 Remember earlier I mentioned having a limited number of frames of film to shoot, well, I can't for the life of me remember why I took this photo of a large group of people waiting in line for the bus.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
It must of had some significance at the time. My only thoughts now must be that I was so impressed these people would stand outside in this weather and do anything!

  So we arrive at our hotel and it looks nice from the outside. I wish I could remember the name. I remember thinking it wasn't a dump but also wasn't a five-star property by American standards but I'm really not too concerned at this point because we are only staying here two nights anyway. We get to our rooms and it is FREEZING. I look around for a thermostat and there is none. Penny once again reminds me that I told her we had to leave our room lights on for warmth from the bulbs.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The lovely winter view from my hotel window.

  The following morning Vladimir picks us up to show us around town. This is really our only free day in Moscow because tomorrow we will be leaving for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This is Russia's version of Cape Canaveral. He takes us to a local flea market of all places and I find an old Kodak box camera that I purchase for $10. It's the first time I've seen an old camera like this for sell so I think I'm getting a great deal. As it turns out it's worth about $5-10 dollars so no big deal or loss. As we are driving along I see this building shown below and snap the shot. Vladimir gives me a look and says "No Photos, military building.". Too late....no DELETE button on the film camera and he doesn't say anything afterwards.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard 
I have images for a moment of someone grabbing the camera and yanking the film out of it like you see in movies but nothing comes of it. I'd love it if someone can identify the building and tell me if it is some type of military installation.

Along the drive I also snap a few pictures of the typical Russian orthodox churches. The architecture is amazing.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard 
I just wish I had the chance to actually take the time when composing these shots but they were taken from a moving van so the power lines are just part of the view.

   Later that evening after dinner Vladimir has left us and Tom gets the wise idea to go out "exploring" Moscow on his own and ask me to tag along. At first I'm a bit reluctant but decide to go with him. How much trouble can we get into, right? He finds out from the hotel subway map that we are only two stops from Red Square so we must go. We board the subway and once again are greeting by young military "kids" patrolling the subway with their AK-47's. Two stops later and we are in Red Square and I grab this shot of the Kremlin.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard 
The Kremlin
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
St. Basil’s Cathedral
 Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard
The Kremlin & St. Basil's Cathedral

  I must admit it was a bit eerie standing in Red Square, knowing a bit of the history that had taken place under my feet.

A couple of blocks from Red Square is the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre so we walk over to it and I took this photo.
Russia - Mir Launch - Normand Thagard 
Bolshoi Ballet Theatre

And that is pretty much the extent of my visit in Moscow. The next day Tom and I will leave for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and that is where this story will pick up.......tomorrow.