Beginning with this posting, you will see that NASA employees can submit questions to me via my Q & A on InsideNASA. I will be on the road for the next three weeks so bear with me as we try to get this started. Due to my time constraints, I may not get to every question, but I will make every effort to respond to as many as I can. We’ll also see how the flow goes — maybe there won’t be many questions and I’ll get to all of them.
More about Russia and Kazakhstan
Last week I mentioned that I was in Russia and Kazakhstan to view the Soyuz launch to the International Space Station. We landed in Moscow on Monday, October 8. If there had been no traffic, the commute from the airport to our hotel would have taken about 20-30 minutes. I later learned that we were traveling on the day that broke all records for the worst traffic in Moscow, with rainy conditions, construction, and lots of cars on the road, so it took us two hours to reach our hotel. Later that night, the NASA group headed out to a Georgian restaurant for dinner.
Normally, when I travel internationally I can’t help but take a short nap when I get there because I don’t sleep very much on the plane. This was my first trip in which I successfully stayed awake the rest of the day by hitting the gym for a long workout. I seem to be developing a disturbing fondness for what we call "cheesy bread" (Khachapuri) which, in turn, calls for another long workout.
On Tuesday, we flew to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, a 3.5 hour journey from Moscow. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is located in central Kazakhstan, but the area around the Cosmodrome is under the control of the Russia Federation through a long-standing international agreement. The view of Kazakhstan from the plane reminded me of the southwestern United States — lots of open desert. While I had heard many stories of camels in the area we were unfortunately not lucky enough to see any during our brief visit to the Cosmodrome. The weather in Baikonur, which is often difficult to predict during this time of year, was beautiful, not too cold with a bright sun.
Kazakhstan from the air. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
After arriving at Krainii Airport, we boarded a bus and went directly to the Soyuz launch pad to view the vehicle in the final stages of preparation for launch. Having just celebrated the 50th Anniversary of space flight the week before, it was really exciting to have an opportunity to actually tour the same pad that launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, on April 12, 1961. It was impressive to see the simple and effective approach the Russians take — the launch pad is directly connected to train tracks leading from the vehicle integration building, so the Soyuz arrives horizontally on a train and is erected vertically at the pad a day or so before launch.
Soyuz on train (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Launch pad in Kazakhstan (Photo credit: NASA/Victor Zelenstov)
Wednesday was launch day and I had the privilege of providing some remarks to the Soyuz crew on behalf of NASA shortly after they had suited up for their ride out to the launch pad.
Soyuz crew. (Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelenstov)
After viewing the suit-up and making remarks, I joined my NASA, Russian, and Malaysian colleagues outside to witness the crew’s report to Head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Anatolii Perminov in his capacity as the head of the State Commission that approves the crew for launch. In this exciting ceremony, the Soyuz commander, flanked by his crewmates, salutes the head of the State Commission and assures him that the crew is fully prepared to complete their upcoming mission.
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson was one of the three crew members I addressed. She will serve as the commander of the Expedition 16 International Space Station crew. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Soyuz Commander also will join her as a member of the Expedition 16 crew (the third member of Expedition 16 crew, NASA Astronaut Dan Tani, will join Peggy and Yuri in October traveling to ISS aboard the Space Shuttle). The third Soyuz crew member was Sheikh Muszaphar, a Space Flight Participant from Malaysia. Sheikh will spend nine days on board the ISS and will then return to Earth with the Expedition 15 crew on a Soyuz vehicle.
Russian ceremony with Russian Federal Space Agency, Anatolii Perminov (Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelenstov)
The launch itself occurred at 7:22 p.m. I understand that most Soyuz launches occur early in the morning so an evening launch was quite an event. It occurred just before sunset so the sky had a beautiful red hue and the vehicle was brightly illuminated by the setting sun shortly after it lifted off. As a result, we were able to clearly see the first stage boosters falling away from the vehicle as it disappeared over the horizon.
Russian night launch (Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelenstov)
We received the word that orbit insertion had been achieved and then briefly celebrated the successful launch at a reception hosted by our Russian colleagues and attended by many of the Russian managers, engineers and technicians at the Baikonur Cosmodrome that helped make the Soyuz launch a complete success. We then returned to Moscow late that night (we went for about 22 hours nonstop that day.) Like all the launches I have seen, it is hard to capture the feel of it through pictures. However, NASA photographer
Bill Ingalls has done a spectacular job at capturing some incredible images of the launch:
View my photo album from Kasakhstan