Touring the Baikonur Cosmodrome * Day III

Posted by on Jun 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

The third day is when the real action begins. We leave at 6:00 AM to see the rollout of the real Soyuz rocket that will fly into space in a couple of days. Soyuz TMA-09M is a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that will transport the new crew consisting of Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin from Roscosmos, American Karen Nyberg from NASA and Italian Luca Parmitano from the European Space Agency.

Just when I start regretting I didn’t get a pair of binoculars for better views, I quickly see my error: I won’t need them as we’ll be standing just a few short meters away from the rocket.

The rocket is a Soyuz-FG launch vehicle. At 50 meters in height it’s a sight to behold. It slowly emerges in a horizontal engines-first position from the huge assembly facility and starts following the rail track that will take it to the launch pad.  Jaws drop.

For me seeing a real rocket for the first time is emotional and slightly surreal. This is the real thing that will fly people into space and not some random museum exhibit. And I’m standing right next to it. It’s the kind of stuff you see on TV or on the internet, just 10 times cooler. The experience is awe-inspiring.

The Soyuz is nice and shiny. Nozzles are covered with bright red caps and the first two stages are painted in dark green with orange accents.

The third stage and the capsule are painted in white and bear the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) logo and the Russian flag. There’s an American flag as well. There is tight security, news photographers with their professional cameras and not that many visitors such as ourselves. There’s enough time and room to take lots of cool pictures.

As the rocket moves slowly towards the pad at less than walking speed, we hop on the bus and meet it again further down the track at a rail crossing. Before the rocket arrives we get a glimpse of the launch pad waiting for its treasured prize.

As the rocket makes its second appearance in the distance, the feeling is decidedly scifi-movie-like: a huge field filled with rusty debris, gigantic space infrastructure far in the background, and then a cool shiny rocket moving slowly towards the pad.

It gets really close once again and many more pictures are taken. You can check a NASA video of the rollout here.

Next it’s time for more cool stuff: facilities of past space programs. Our first stop is at the huge transport vehicles for the N1-L3 rocket. Two sets of rail tracks 17 meters apart support each of the two vehicles. The N1 rocket they would have carried weighed 2,745 tons, had 30 engines and a height of 105 meters.

The N1-L3 was supposed to take Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon. There were four unmanned tests of the rocket between 1969-1972 and they all failed. While technical issues would have eventually been sorted out, the program was cancelled in 1974 after the US had definitely won the Moon race and the USSR decided to focus on space shuttles and space stations.

The next stop is the Energia-Buran launch complex, another feat of Soviet engineering. The Buran vehicle was built as the USSR’s answer to the US Space Shuttle and out of fears that the latter will be used for military applications. After a first successful unmanned flight in 1988, the program was cancelled due to lack of funds and to the changing political situation in the Soviet Union.

The launch pad we visit is impressive. The rusting infrastructure is gigantic in size and looks alien.

It all reminds me of the phenomenal novel Roadside Picnic by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (see the Russian link here?) about an alien visitation that ends quickly and leaves behind incomprehensible technology and no explanations. It’s just a fantastic feeling to wander around the huge launch pad and imagine the Energia rocket weighing 2.4 Million kilograms and carrying the Buran vehicle awaiting its launch.

As the day couldn’t get any better in terms of space stuff, we head off to the local market to hunt for local delicacies and the ultimate space souvenir. We find an assortment of more or less tacky souvenirs, and lots of vegetables, groceries, clothes and pretty much everything else.

I meet Abby, a cool 15 year-old from Minnesota who was in Baikonur for the launch as well, had the Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano as her mentor and plans to be the first astronaut to Mars. Not a bad way to end a great day.

Keep reading about Baikonur: Day I | Day II | Day III | Day IV | Day V | Day VI