April 4th 2011, the crew of Soyuz TMA-21 woke up at about 8:30am, we were able to spend an hour or so with our families, then we packed up our belongings, ate lunch and went back to bed.
We then started our “real” day at 7:00pm. After dinner, we met with some of the Russian Space Agency managers before we began the launch ceremonies. Starting with the traditional signing of the doors of our crew quarters rooms, we then received a blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest and made our way to the buses that would take us to the launch facility. Many friends, family and co-workers lined the route to the buses and gave us a great send off!
It was a very quiet 20 minute ride through the pitch-black desert to the Baikonur Launch Facility. As we were waiting to change into our spacesuits at the launch facility, we watched a very nice send-off video with messages from the friends and family of each of us on the crew (I really appreciated that).
After changing into our Sokol spacesuits, we had a brief meeting with the State Commision. With friends, family, and visiting dignitaries in attendance, and with the State Commission on one side of a large glass window and the crew on the other, we had our last few words with the managers who represent the many people who worked to get everything ready for launch.
After the meeting with the State Commission and giving our final report we boarded buses for the launch pad. As the bus pulled away we were able to wave goodbye to those people in attendance that are special to us in our last face-to-face contact for the next 6-months.
Arriving at the launch pad we were greeted by a very memorable sight. The rocket was completely covered in a layer of white ice. We could hear the rocket venting and the sight of the white oygen vapor being bathed in the floodlights on the very early morning hours of April 5th was sight to be seen. The whole launch process was steeped in tradition – even the walk from the bus was symbolic.
As we walked to the foot of the launch pad, space program senior managers held us on both sides as we walked. This was very good because it’s hard to walk in those spacesuits! But, I also think they represented the many thousands of people who actually helped bring us to this launch. One of those in my case was Mike Suffredini, head of NASA’s International Space Station program.
In an interesting tradition I was not aware of, each of us received a kick in the butt from one of the senior Russian Space program managers as we stepped toward the ladder to the launch pad – as if to provide one last measure of encouragement to launch.
The three crewmembers and one technician rode the elevator through clouds of liquid oxygen to the top of the rocket. Each of us signed the entry hatch and climbed inside and took our respective places in the capsule.
During the hours of launch prep there were times when the crew really had nothing to do but wait. During those periods music was played over our headsets. One of the songs I really enjoyed listening to was “One” by U2.
Lying in our seats before launch was actually very peaceful. We periodically felt vibrations and valves opening and closing, and we heard fans and motors turning on and off, but through all that I felt a peaceful reassurance that everything was ready to go. The vehicle definitely felt alive and ready. Laying there strapped to the rocket I thought about all those people that are close to me that were watching there in Baikonur, on TV or online.
About 10 seconds before the planned liftoff we could hear and feel the engines start. When the clock hit zero, we could feel ourselves being propelled upward. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first human to space, Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev calmly said, “In the words of Yuri Gararin, Поехали.” (We’re off.). I, on the other hand, let loose with a spontaneous “Woo Hoo!”
The 1st stage of the launch had a lot less vibration than I remember from my Shuttle launch. The 2nd stage separation however was quite an event, which led to my second “Woo Hoo!”
After our rocket fairing bearing the name and likeness of Yuri Gagarin jettisoned, exposing the windows of our capsule, I watched my 1st of many orbital sunrises. The launch was actually significantly more fun than I had anticipated. After we got to space I felt like Fred Randal from the movie “Rocket Man.” I wanted to yell out, “Can we do that again” but restrained myself. After launch it was probably at least another 4 hours until I was out of my seat and out of my spacesuit.
After a few hours of procedures and maneuvers to put our spacecraft on the proper course to “catch up” with the ISS, Alexander and I, like bats, hung our sleeping bags from the top of the Soyuz habitation compartment with our heads down to the hatch to the descent module with Andrey building his nest in the descent module. I usually find it hard to sleep in space but after such a long and exciting day I dropped right off.
As I write this, it is the morning of our first full day in space. I’m finding this experience much different than my experience on the Space Shuttle. Not just because it’s a smaller vehicle, but mainly because we only have brief periods of time, every few hours, when we have contact with the ground.
Basically it’s just the three of us in our little spacecraft, Sasha, Andrey and I, separated from everyone else in the world.
It really is an interesting place to be. The spacecraft slowly rotates about all 3 axes as it orbits the Earth (pitch, yaw, and roll). Looking out the window I felt like I was riding on a slowly tumbling leaf being blown around the world. The Soyuz spacecraft is a great and reliable ship and although it is a very small vehicle, it is surprisingly comfortable to live in on orbit (assuming you like the people you’re with – which I do!)
Thinking back over the last 24 hours in space I need to stop for a moment and express how amazed and impressed I am with my crewmates. Although this was the first flight for both Alexander & Andrey, they both adapted to weightless immediately and acted like they were seasoned, veteran cosmonauts. I know of no way to predict how people will react after arriving space for the first time, so I felt very fortunate to be a part of such a capable crew.
Between now and joining up with the space station, we will continue to adapt to our new environment, get our spacecraft ready for the docking, and look at our beautiful Earth while thinking of all of those people we said goodbye to, and won’t see for the next six months.
I’ve also been thinking of all the people who helped to make this experience wonderful for me personally: the people who were able to make it to the launch, those that couldn’t but supported us from home, and all the people who supported us in Baikonur. I am filled with gratitude to our family escorts, flight docs and managers, our instructors and Baikonur support staff.
I’m going to close for now. In my next post I hope to describe our first experiences after arriving on the International Space Station.
All the best from Earth orbit,