A Tale of Two Homecomings – Part II

Cross posted on fragileoasis.org

Last week, Andrey Borisenko, Sasha Samokutyaev and I were given a wonderful welcome at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, just outside of Moscow. 
Our day began with an official debriefing of our mission to the International Space Station that began with a launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on April 4, 2011, followed by docking to the ISS two days later.  The mission’s accomplishments were discussed, and the heads of various departments gave an overview of the mission’s events. Andrey, Sasha and I also had the opportunity to say a few words. 
After the debrief, the three of us were escorted outside the gates of the Training Center where we were greeted by several hundred people as we placed flowers at the base of the majestic statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. We had come full circle – just prior to our mission, Andrey, Sasha and I paid our respects at Gagarin’s tomb, and then a few weeks later, strapped ourselves into a rocket bearing his likeness and his name, honoring his pioneering flight fifty years earlier.
Andrey, Sasha and I sharing a quiet moment at the statue honoring Yuri Gagarin outside the Cosmonaut Training Center on a beautiful fall day in Star City Russia
A marching band led us back inside the training complex for the public welcome ceremony – with hundreds of well wishers, Russian military officers and cosmonauts in formation, many of the instructors, technicians and support personnel who were directly involved in our mission, and who contributed to its success – all lining the route. 
At the public ceremony, the heads of many different organizations took the podium, recounted the successes of the mission and presented us with gifts and bouquets of flowers. Again each of us had the opportunity to say a few words. I thanked the Russian Space Agency, Star City instructors and the public for their great support during the mission, and praised the talent and professionalism of my Russian crewmates. One of the things I stressed was how impressed I was by the fact that from the moment we arrived in orbit, Andrey and Sasha performed as seasoned space veterans even though this was their first spaceflight.
After the public ceremony, a reception was held in the facility where the cosmonauts live during their rehabilitation after space flight. Leaders of the Russian Space program, local dignitaries, family members of the crew, and veteran cosmonauts each took turns toasting the success of the mission.
Words cannot describe how wonderful it was to hear all the heartfelt words of congratulations and support. What an amazing thing it is to be able to toast the accomplishments of the many nations of our international partnership. Many of those present commented on what a great example of cooperation our international space program has become. I agree, and hope that we use this example of cooperation to overcome the challenges facing the inhabitants of our beautiful planet.
As the reception ended, it was time to say goodbye to the crewmates with whom I trained for two and a half years, then lived and worked with for nearly six months onboard the International Space Station. It was a bittersweet moment. This goodbye meant the official end to our mission. 
Andrey, Sasha and I and our families have become very close. We share a special bond forged from a unique experience – one which can’t help but to bring people closer together in common appreciation of the privilege we had to live and work in space, and the common appreciation of our wonderful planet Earth.

We're Getting the Band Back Together

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The Expedition 28 crew is at full strength with the Thursday night arrival to the International Space Station of Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa. They joined Commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and myself.

Three Ships Pass In The Night – Part III

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Welcome to “Three Ships Pass in the Night” Part III, the story of the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s visit to the International Space Station through a series of short recollections:
The “Three Ships” refer to the International Space Station, the docking and undocking of Space Shuttle Endeavour and the undocking of the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft that returned Dmitry Kondratyev, Cady Coleman, and Paolo Nespoli to Earth.
After spending almost two months in space with Dima, Cady and Paolo, I was sad to see them leave. They spent a great deal of time getting me up to speed on all the procedures, systems and life in general aboard the Space Station. They all did a great job during their six months up here.

“@Astro_Ron: Yesterday just before Dima @Astro_Paolo + @Astro_Cady closed the hatch on their Soyuz ride home #FromSpace” 
Tweeted 24 May 2011
On the day of the Soyuz undocking, the combined Space Station and Space Shuttle crews were on a split sleep schedule. The Shuttle crew and I were on one sleep schedule, and the rest of the Station crew on another.
I was supposed to be asleep before we closed the Soyuz-ISS hatches. Instead, I stayed awake to say goodbye to our friends at hatch closing, planning to go to sleep before undocking. An alarm on the Station changed that plan.
Shortly after I went to bed, a minor alarm woke me up. This led to a couple of hours of work, bringing the time very close to undocking. Since I was up anyway, I watched the undocking and fly around of the Soyuz. 
It was decided that after undocking the Soyuz would back away from the Space Station and then the Station would slowly rotate to provide different backdrops for an historic photo shoot of the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the Space Station. This also gave me the opportunity to take pictures of the Soyuz as it backed away. 
I’m very happy Dima, Cady and Paolo had a safe landing in Kazakhstan and that they’re all back with their families. I’m saving the Shuttle farewell story for a future installment called “Storm in the Milky Way.”

“@Astro_Ron: On their way home @Astro_Paolo is in the Soyuz window taking historic pics of the #ISS + #Endeavour #FromSpace” 
Tweeted 24 May 2011
Bumps and Bangs and the Wayward Bolt
During Endeavour’s mission, the STS-134 crew conducted four spacewalks. Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly and I were responsible for getting the guys in their spacesuits, carrying out the methodical and involved process of getting them safely out the door for each one. 
After each spacewalk began, I went about other activities and responsibilities until the guys were ready to come back inside. Normally, a spacewalk lasts anywhere from 5 to 8 hours, so I had some time to get some great pictures of the guys outside from the cupola, and occasionally from the nadir docked Soyuz.
“@Astro_Ron: Drew Feustel coming back inside today #FromSpace after a hard day at the office Px taken from the 25S Soyuz”  
Tweeted 20 May 2011
During breaks in the action, I would fly into my crew quarters and send out a picture or two of the spacewalkers via Twitter. It was really strange to be in my crew quarters sending a picture out of two guys out in the vacuum of space while I could hear them banging and clunking around outside the Space Station. It reminded me of trying to do work at home on Earth while construction was going on next door.
“@Astro_Ron: #FromSpace : Drew @AstroIronMike from the cupola #highaltitudeconstruction” 
Tweeted 25 May 2011
During the spacewalk, a bolt that Mike Fincke was loosening with the very high tech Pistol Grip Tool (PGT) broke off and floated away. Mark Kelly and I went to the cupola, and sure enough, we could see a shiny new satellite tumbling away toward the Earth’s horizon. We took pictures and video of it to help Mission Control determine the bolt’s trajectory and whether or not it would pose a threat to the Space Station. It didn’t.

“@Astro_Ron: @ShuttleCDRKelly + I sitting on top of the world – px taken by @AstroIronMike while out in the vacuum of space”  
Tweeted 26 May 2011
The Pope

During Endeavour’s mission, we were honored to speak live with Pope Benedict XVI from the Vatican. The Pope had some prepared words for us, and he asked some questions. 
Pope Benedict XVI asked me:
“One of the things you have discussed concerns a responsibility we all have toward the future of our planet. I recall the serious risks facing the environment and the survival of future generations. Scientists tell us we have to be careful and from an ethical point of view, we must develop our conscience as well. From your extraordinary observation point how do you see the situation on Earth? Do you see signs of phenomena to which we need to be more attentive?”
Transcript of my answer:
“Your Holiness it is a great honor to speak with you. You’re right, it really is an extraordinary vantage point we have up here. On the one hand, we can see how indescribably beautiful the planet we have been given is. but on the other hand, we can clearly see how fragile it is. The atmosphere. for instance, when viewed from space looks paper-thin, and to think that this paper-thin layer is all that separates every living thing on our planet from the vacuum of space and is all that protects us, is really a sobering thought. You really have a sense here as you look down at our planet hanging in the blackness of space, that we are all on this together; riding on this beautiful, fragile oasis through the universe. It really fills us with a lot of hope to think that all of us on board this incredible orbiting Space Station, that was built by the many nations of our international partnership — to accomplish this tremendous feat in orbit shows that by working together and cooperating — we can solve many of the problems facing our planet, and overcome many of the challenges that face the inhabitants of our planet. It really is a wonderful place to live and work and it is a wonderful place to view our beautiful Earth.”
I’m going to break for now. Hopefully the next installment of Endeavour’s visit to the International Space Station will include my first video blog (I think it will be the first video blog from space). The remaining topics on this post are:
  • Our Italian Restaurant
  • Yuri Gagarin has Arrived at the Space Station
  • A Cloud of Luminescent Vapor
  • High Altitude Home Repairs
  • Everyone Loves Ice Cream
  • The Storm in the Milky Way

Three Ships Pass In The Night – Part II

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Welcome to “Three Ships Pass in the Night” Part II, the story of Space Shuttle Endeavour’s visit to the International Space Station.
Things are back to normal after the departure of the Space Shuttle and the crew of STS-134. I’ll tell the story of their visit in a series of short recollections.
A Rendezvous with Endeavour
On Wednesday, May 18th, the Expedition 27 crew aboard the ISS spent the morning getting ready for the arrival of our visitors.
Just after lunch — or what we on the ISS call “the mid-day meal” — all the ISS crewmembers gathered in the Russian Service Module as Endeavour arrived 600 meters below. 
Cady, Paolo and Dima each positioned themselves in one of the six Earth facing windows to photograph Endeavour’s thermal protection system (heat shield).  Cady had a 400mm lens, Paolo an 800mm lens and Dima used a 1000mm lens. I was armed with a stopwatch in each hand, and the plan for how we were going to document Endeavour’s red carpet arrival. 
After pausing 600 meters below us, Endeavour began a 360 degree flip so that the bottom of the orbiter would be visible to us on the Space Station. The photo-documentation of the underside of the Space Shuttle is used to clear the Shuttle for re-entry and landing after the docked mission is complete.  Through most of the maneuver we were two spacecrafts traveling over Europe. The view was just beautiful. But the most beautiful view of all was what we did not see: any obvious serious damage to Endeavour’s heat shield.
After the flip and hundreds of pictures, Commander Mark Kelly guided Endeavour in front of us to slowly back-in for docking. As I mentioned in my last post, during the docking Dima and I were at the controls of the U.S. and Russian motion control systems.  This was to ensure that the Space Station stopped controlling attitude at the moment of docking in order to accomplish a safe docking.
After docking, we still had a couple of hours of work to do before we could open the hatch and say hello to our visitors. After the pressure between the Shuttle and the Station was equalized and all checks were complete, Paolo and I opened the forward facing hatch of the Harmony Module and greeted the crew of STS-134.
After some quick hellos, Dima gave the Shuttle crew an initial safety briefing before taking the crew on a tour of the Station, pointing out the location of safety equipment to be used in the case of an emergency onboard.
Space Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly and Space Station Commander Dmitry Kondratiev
Hurricane Endeavour
A Space Shuttle mission has been described as a sprint in comparison to the marathon pace of a six-month Space Station mission. That difference was apparent as soon as the hatch was opened, and the two-week flurry of activity began in earnest.
At any given moment, crewmembers could be found operating the Space Station’s robotic arm from the cupola, while others were operating the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm. Crew were loading and unloading cargo, repairing Space Station systems, conducting media interviews, conducting scientific experiments, or working outside in the vacuum of space to put the finishing touches on Space Station construction. I don’t think there was a time during the docked mission when someone was not in motion from one part of the Space Station to another.
An Easy Commute to Work
It is very interesting to see people first arrive onboard the space station. Even though crews have a couple of days to get reacquainted with the experience of being in space, entering the relatively wide open spaces of the Station requires a whole new adjustment period. In the confines of the Space Shuttle or the Soyuz, you’re never more than a few inches from something to hold on to. To move around on these spacecraft, you simply move hand over hand, grabbing on to whatever is “handy”. On the Space Station, we move from one place to another by flying. You simply push off with your feet like Superman and fly in any direction you desire. 
This new freedom does take some time to get used to, and it takes some time to master. It’s very entertaining to watch others get their “wings” as I’m sure I was amusing to watch upon my arrival. Eventually all the precision moves of an Olympic gymnast on a gold medal dismount find their way into an acrobatic routine.  Moving large objects around the Space Station is especially interesting. It’s always fun to give massive objects a nudge in the direction you want them to move, and then simply hold on as their large mass drags you along like hitching a ride on the back of a dolphin. Of course you can’t forget you’re also responsible for the brakes too!
I’m going to close here for now, but to whet you appetite for future installments of Endeavor’s visit, here’s a list of the topics I plan to write  about:
  •  Our Italian Restaurant   
  •  The Pope   
  •  Bumps, Bangs and the Wayward Bolt   
  •  Yuri Gagarin has Arrived at the Space Station   
  •  Farewells   
  •  A Cloud of Luminescent Vapor   
  •  High Altitude Home Repairs
  •  Everyone Loves Ice Cream   
  •  The Storm in the Milky Way

Pre-Flight Traditions

Expedition 27/28 Crew in Red Square (Photo: NASA)

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The two-and-a-half years of training for the Expedition 27/28 missions culminated last week with our participation in pre-launch traditions. Last Friday, we went before the State Commission. The State Commission was headed by Sergey Krikalev. Besides being the Chief of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Sergey has spent more time in space than anyone in history (803 days 9 hours and 39 minutes). At the Commission, all our training for the mission was reviewed, each of us said a few words, and then we were certified “Ready for Flight.” Following the State Commission, we conducted a press conference with Russian and European media that was also covered by NASA TV.

On Friday, after the press conference, we visited the Cosmonaut Museum here in Star City. Before touring through the great historical displays, each crew sat at Yuri Gagarin’sdesk and signed the Cosmonaut Book. It was fun looking through the book and seeing the names and well wishes of the crews that went before us. From Star City we headed down to Red Square where we each took turns laying flowers at the tombs of Yuri

Expedition 27/28 Crew after the Russian Space Agency press conference (Photo: Yahoo.com)

Gagarin and Sergey Korolev. What a great honor to be able to show our respect to the first human in space, and to the father of the Russian space program.  We also placed flowers on the tomb of Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov who was the first person to fly in space twice, and also was unfortunately the first person to die during a space mission when he perished on Soyuz 1. In addition to paying respect to those great champions of human spaceflight that have gone before us, we also had some time for “photo-ops” in front of the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon inside the Kremlin. and of course in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Signing the Cosmonaut Book at Yuri Gagarin’s desk (photo: Yahoo.com)

After our visit to Red Square we all headed to the headquarters of the Russian Space Agency to meet with the Director of the Russian Federal Space Agency,  Anatoly Perminov .  Mr. Perminov congratulated us on the completion of our Star City based training and talked about the challenges we would face on our mission. He also talked about the desire of the international community to explore beyond low-Earth orbit including the Moon and Mars.

Expedition 27/28 prime and backup crews in front of theTsar Bell inside the Kremlin (Photo: NASA)

We were scheduled to depart Star City for Baikonur this Thursday, but technical problems with our spacecraft have delayed our launch. We do not expect a very long delay and we except to find out the new launch date in a day or two. Whenever we end up arriving in Baikonur, I’m really looking forward to being in that place, so close to the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight, and where so much space history was made.

Final Flight Readiness Examinations

Expedition 27/28 Crew (from L-R) Ron Garan, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Andrey Borisenko Photo Credit: RSA

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I would like to start this post out with an apology. It has been almost a month since I last updated everyone here on Fragile Oasis. I will try harder to keep everyone updated more frequently as our launch draws closer and even after we are on orbit. These past few weeks have been very busy and have marked the completion of our crew’s Soyuz and Space Station training. Our training ended with full day final exams in the Space Station and Soyuz simulators. On the first day of exams, Alexander Samokutyaev, Andrey Borisenko, and I reported to “The Commission” in front of a sea of media.

The Expedition 27/28 Crew speaks to reporters at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City Russia prior to the start of final qualification exams. Photo Credit: CAM111.com

After reporting to the commission, Andrey selected one envelope from a choice of five which contained the malfunctions we would experience during the simulation. Our 1st exam consisted of a “normal” day onboard the ISS with occasional malfunctions sprinkled in. After about 8 hours, the examination concluded with a simulated rapid depressurization inside our space station mockup. We systematical closed hatches in a pre-determined sequence to pinpoint the leaking compartment. After the examination was complete, we went before the “Commission” to receive our evaluation (in front of a packed room of people). All in all the simulation went very well and we were given good marks. While we were in the Space Station simulation our backup crew of Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and Dan Burbank did a great job with their final exam in the Soyuz simulator.

The next day, the prime and back-up crews switched places. We started our all-day Soyuz exam by changing into our Sokol spacesuits and again reporting to the Commission. This time Soyuz Commander Alexander Samolkuaev picked the sealed envelope that contained the malfunctions we would face throughout the day. Of course we did not get to look inside the envelope. Inside the Soyuz sim we went through all the procedures for launch, rendezvous, docking with the ISS, and undocking. At the end of the day, just after we undocked, our capsule filled with smoke. We quickly accomplished the procedures for putting out the simulated fire which included venting all the air out of the capsule and then we began the procedures for our emergency descent back to Earth. As “luck” would have it, our computers failed and we went through all the procedures manually. We “survived” the simulation and the exam debrief and received great marks and congratulations from the Commission and from the many people in attendance.

The Expedition 27/28 Crew speaks to reporters at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City Russia prior to the start of final qualification exams. Photo Credit: Gene Dowell

After the exams were all over we had a wonderful party at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center with the crews,  cosmonauts, Russian Space Agency dignitaries, and our instructors. There was a great feeling of accomplishment. It was great to be able to share this celebration with those wonderful training professionals who make many sacrifices and work very hard to ensure that crews are ready for flight. It doesn’t matter what country you are in, the pride that people who work in the space program have in their chosen profession shines through in all that they do. It is really humbling to be a part of this special endeavor of humanity.

As I write this post the Space Shuttle Discovery has just touched down at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I was able to watch Discovery’s return to Earth on NASA TV from my cottage here in Star City. Discovery’s landing was a bitter-sweet moment. It was rewarding because my friends are onboard and the landing marked the safe and successful end to a challenging mission. The landing also marked the retirement of NASA’s most experienced Space Shuttle, a vehicle that has spent a full year in space, deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, flew two return-to-flight missions, and had a major role in the construction of the ISS. Personally, I was absolutely amazed with how well Discovery performed during the 14 days I spent onboard her during STS-124. God Speed Discovery.

Tomorrow is another big day. Our day will begin with the prime and backup crews reporting to the State Commission for formal certification of flight readiness, followed by a press conference, a visit to the Cosmonaut Museum. Our day will end after a trip to Red Square where we will lay flowers at the tombs of Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev to honor the first human in space and the Father of the Russian Space Program. Our launch is scheduled for the 30th of March from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (29th of March in the US). I see the light at the end of the tunnel (and it’s 32 liquid kerosene rocket engines)! Please spread the word that I will be sending out updates as often as I can (both on this blog and at http://twitter.com/Astro_Ron ) and that before I launch we will introduce an exciting new Fragile Oasis website. Stay tuned!

Expedition 27/28 Crew pose for photos with journalists (Photo: RSA)

IAH Gate E7: 1st Leg on the Journey to Space

My Last View of the US for the Next Eight Months

Well here I sit in the airport in Houston getting ready to start my journey to space.

First I will fly to Frankfurt for the rest of the week to finish my last training at the European Astronaut Center. I will have refresher training on the Columbus Laboratory, the Automated Transfer Vehicle and training on some of the European Space Agency experiments that we will conduct on board the ISS during our mission.

On Saturday, Dan Burbank and I will fly to Moscow to finish the last Soyuz and Russian Segment Space Station training in Star City. The Complex Examinations before the State Commission that we must pass before we head down to Kazakhstan for the final launch preparations will be the culmination of training in Star City.

Alexander Samokutyayev and Andrey Borisenko and I are presently scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft at 7:42pm CT on March 29th (00:42 GMT on March 30th, 4:42am Moscow time on March 30th, and 6:42am Baikonur time on March 30th which is 52 minutes before sunrise in Baikonur). This is less than 2 weeks prior to the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight.

We will launch from the same launch pad where Yuri Gagarin began his historic flight that marked the beginning of the space age. What a great honor that will be!

As I prepared to leave for final launch preparations, I experienced an interesting phenomena. Realizing that leaving Houston starts me on a journey that will take me off the planet for 6 months, I started to take note of things that I will not experience for half a year. Whether it’s a flock of birds against the sunset or early morning mist on the water of Clear Lake, or a million other things that define the beauty of life on our planet, I experienced a profound appreciation for the gift of the beauty of our world. I will miss a great many experiences that I normally take for granted, but I also look forward to the new experiences that define the beauty of life off the planet.

Please stay tuned as we improve FragileOasis.org and make it an even better tool for those of us living off the planet to share our experiences with those living on the planet.

Happy Columbus Day: A Day to Celebrate Explorers Past & Present-The Launch of Expedition 25

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Pre-Dawn Rollout of the Soyuz Spacecraft (Photo Victor Zelentsov -NASA)

Here I sit at the airport in Moscow reflecting on the amazing events of the last two weeks and excited that after two months on the road (Germany, Russia & Kazakhstan), I’m heading home! In a strange coincidence, I should land in Houston at the same time that the Expedition-25 crew docks to the International Space Station. While I wait for my plane I’m starting this post to document the experience of launch week at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The week was filled with activity and tradition.

On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010, Expedition 25’s Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft rolled from the assembly building to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It was an incredible sight to see this powerful rocket being pulled by rail against the back drop of the chilly Kazakh desert steppe at dawn. I estimate the trip from the assembly building to the launch pad took roughly an hour. After the spacecraft arrived at the launch pad, it was rotated to the vertical launch position. I was extremely impressed with the speed and efficiency of the entire operation.

This was the first rollout of the new TMA-01M spacecraft. The TMA-01M is a modified Soyuz spacecraft that features upgraded avionics and a digital cockpit display. It provides big improvements in the crew’s interface with the spacecraft.

Soyuz Spacecraft Rolls to the Launch Pad (Photo: Victor Zelentsov – NASA)

Soyuz Spacecraft Rolls to the Launch Pad (Photo: Victor Zelentsov – NASA)

The last full day before launch was a busy one. The prime and backup crews went before the State Commission. After brief comments by senior leadership of both the Russian and American space programs, each crew member had an opportunity to say a few words. I tried to express my sincere feeling that it was a great honor to be a part of the backup crew for Expedition 25. Both the prime and backup crews are very experienced and capable and I learned a lot from them.
After the State Commission we had a press conference with media from all over the world. We also got to meet (through the quarantine glass) the two Russian students who designed the mission patch for this launch. They were both beaming. After the press conference, we participated in one of the many Russian pre-launch traditions, watching the traditional pre-launch movie. With the crew watching from behind the quarantine glass, we all watched the Russian movie “
White Sun of the Desert” (“Белое солнце пустыни”) This film, which was released in 1969 and set on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (Turkmenistan today), has been watched before every launch in recent history. This film has nothing to do with space travel but is an entertaining blend of action, comedy, music and drama. I’m not exactly sure why or when this tradition started but one of the stories I heard is that this film was watched by the first crew to fly after a Soyuz spacecraft disaster which took the lives of a Soyuz crew during re-entry. Since there were no problems on the subsequent flight, there was a desire not to change anything (even the choice of the pre-flight movie).

The crew started out Launch Day with breakfast at 8:00am and then had free/nap time until about 8:30pm. Prior to the pre-launch meal, Scott Kelly, Scott’s Flight Surgeon Steve Gilmore, and I took a stroll through the Cosmonaut Grove so that Scott could enjoy his last sunshine, fresh air and cool breeze for the next six months. Earlier in the week, Scott Kelly and Oleg Skripochka planted their trees in the Cosmonaut Grove following the tradition of every space traveler who has left Earth from Baikonur since Yuri Gagarin. Sometime during our stroll through the Cosmonaut Grove it dawned on me that it might be interesting for people to be able to follow all the pre-launch preparation by sending out pictures of the “play-by-play” via Twitter. So with Scott’s permission I started to document as much as I could. I didn’t want to pass up this rare opportunity to give everyone a behind the scenes look at our time immediately prior to launch from an astronaut perspective.

After dinner, we met with senior leadership of the Russian and American space programs and prior to leaving the quarantine facility, each crewmember signed the door to his quarantine room and then received the traditional pre-flight blessing from a Russian Orthodox Priest.

One Side of the Story: Scott Kelly Receiving His Blessing Note: Paparazzi in Background (Photo: NASA)

Other Side of the Story (Photo: Ron Garan

Before boarding the two cosmonaut busses (one for the prime crew and one for the backup crew – keeping with the you can’t put all your eggs in one basket mindset), we passed through lines of people who gathered to say their good-byes and wish the crew well.

Scott Kelly Waving to Friends and Family (Photo: NASA)

Scott Kelly’s Friends & Family (Photo: Scott Kelly via Ron Garan’s iPhone)

At 11:00pm, we began the 45-minute drive via police escorted convoy through the pitch-black desert to the launch complex. The atmosphere on the bus was serious and quiet. After arriving at the launch complex, the prime crew suited up in their Sokol spacesuits, conducted leak checks, and then had an opportunity to say a few words (through the glass) to space program management and to the crew’s launch guests.

Scott Kelly Speaks to the Commission (Photo: Ron Garan’s iPhone)

The Crew of Expedition-25 Reports to the State Commission (Photo: Ron Garan’s iPhone)

Shortly after 2:00am, the crews boarded their respective buses to the launch pad. In keeping with other pre-launch traditions, the busses stopped prior to the pad, then after a short delay, the backup crew was permitted to board the prime crew bus to say our goodbyes. The Soyuz rocket on the pad was an interesting sight. The normally grey colored rocket was now all white from ice that formed on the exterior of the rocket from its super-cooled load of fuel. Steam poured from the spacecraft as liquid oxygen boiled off and was vented. It was obvious that this rocket was ready to go somewhere very soon. After the prime crew was dropped off at the pad, the backup crew then switched buses, signifying that they were now prime for their assigned mission.

After riding the elevator to the pointy end of the rocket, the crew climbed through the access hatch and down into the Soyuz descent capsule to strap in and begin the 3 hours of preflight checks. We then rode out to the viewing area located about a mile from the launch pad to wait for launch.

Expedition 25 Soyuz Commander Alexander Kaleri of Russia, bottom, NASA Flight Engineer Scott Kelly of the U.S., center, and Russian Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka wave farewell from the bottom of the Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. (Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi)

The launch was spectacular. At 5:10:32am, the 32 rocket engines of the Soyuz first stage lit up the night sky as they roared to life. After what seemed like an eternity, the rocket lifted off the pad to the cheers of all the spectators who gathered in the cold desert morning to witness the send off. After approximately 8 ½ minutes, the crew was in orbit.

Launch of Expedition 25 (Photo: NASA)

The Soyuz Spacecraft Leaves a Trail of Fire After Launch (Photo: NASA)

It was an amazing experience to witness a Soyuz launch for the first time. In addition to the excitement and historical significance of watching a launch from the same pad as Yuri Gagarin, I couldn’t help but think that in just a few months I’ll be strapped to that rocket making the same trip. I truly realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to travel to space and will do my best to share that experience as best I can.