The Experience of a Lifetime: Attending a Soyuz Launch

Before departing for Russia, I had heard stories about attending a Soyuz launch. People told me details about how close I would be, how powerful the launch was, how different it was from a shuttle launch. But none of these stories fully prepared me for the experience. I was blown away, almost literally, by the enormity of what I had experienced. It was a launch of such great magnitude and emotion that I wonder even now if it was real.

Full Video of  TMA-09 Soyuz Launch of Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roskosmos, Karen Nyberg of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency can be seen by scrolling to bottom of this post.

The Pre-Launch Experience: Becoming Part of the Family

For me the launch experience started long before the actual launch day of May 29, 2013. Our arrival in Moscow on May 17 marked the beginning of this adventure and a 12 day whirlwind of tours and traveling with my Astronaut Luca Parmitano’s family and close friends. I feel it’s important to mention this as it affects how I experienced the launch – I not only was watching my mentor launch into space, but the father, husband, son and friend of many people I now call family. Luca’s family and friends were so much fun to get to know and I enjoyed my time with them and miss them now that I am home. I cannot thank Luca and his wife Kathy enough for inviting me to join their family to have this experience.

Star City 8

Luca and AbbyAfter 8 days in Moscow with Luca’s family and friends we arrived in Baikonur, Kazakhstan and the real launch experience began. Not only did we experience local culture and food, we got to visit Luca twice while he was in quarantine. For our first visit we got to talk to Luca first outside through a fence and then inside separated with glass. It was a bit awkward especially with the glass barrier. But for the second visit it was like the glass was not there. We talked to him, asked some questions about the launch, and gave our parting goodbyes. Luca acted the way I had always imagined an astronaut would with less than 24 hours until their launch day: absolutely ecstatic and excited.  I cherish these experiences as I really got to know Luca through his interactions with friends and family.

We also got to watch the rollout of Luca’s Soyuz Rocket. The rollout is when the rocket and spacecraft are moved from the vehicle assemble building (like a big warehouse) to the launch pad several miles away. In Baikonur the rocket is moved using a train. The train slowly winded across the desert towards the launch pad. I really enjoyed seeing this as it setup the anticipation for the launch. When I saw the STS-134 launch I did not get to see the rollout so this was an extra special treat for me!

Soyuz Launch rollout

In this picture the Soyuz rocket is being slowly moved to the launch pad which is directly behind it.

Launch Night | Events Leading Up to the Soyuz Launch

Astronaut Walk Out #1 from Quarantine

Our launch experience began at about 8pm, QYZT (Qyzylorda Time) when we went across the street from our hotel to watch the astronauts as they walked out of the Cosmonaut Hotel where they had stayed for quarantine to the bus that would take them to the suit up building. The atmosphere was incredibly festive, with Russian rock music playing and the crowd buzzing. As the astronauts walked out, the only thing I could focus on was their smiles. These vibrant smiles relayed so much, but mainly dreams about to be accomplished. As Luca walked by me, I cheered for him and he turned to me and waved. It felt less like a goodbye, and more like a promise, a promise for greater things to come.

 

Astronaut Walk Out #2 | Leaving for the Soyuz Launch Pad

After the walkout we went back to our hotel to prepare to leave for the evening. We left the hotel around 10pm for the second walkout which was to see the astronauts after they were suited up in their Sokul suits and on their way to their Soyuz.  It was surreal to see the astronauts at this walkout. After seeing this image so many times before on TV and in pictures, to actually experience it in person was really cool. I think the first walkout was a bit more fun as it was a bit more casual, a smaller crowd and the astronauts were not all suited up.  Perhaps also the first walkout is not something you normally see in the media, it is a much more personal, insider experience while the Sokul suit walkout is something the world watches.

Suits

Hours to Spare? Let’s Go to A Space Museum and Breakfast Too!

CockpitAfter we watched this walkout we were taken to a local space museum. It was already around midnight and a somewhat interesting experience to be at a space museum in the middle of the night. There were many cool things to see at the musueum although the coolest was the retired Russian Buran space craft which was outside of the museum and open for visitors. The museum had many interesting historical space items, although everything was in Russian so there were many things that I was not able to identify or learn more about.

After the Museum we went to “breakfast” at 1:00 a.m. The breakfast was at a local hotel and was all setup when we arrived. Every table seated 8 people but had enough food for about 30 people.  The variety of food was everything from pastries, fish platters, cheese, fruit, dessert and more!

This was the "breakfast" that awaited us before the launch. So much food!

This was the “breakfast” that awaited us before the launch. So much food!

Here I am at the pre-launch breakfast. Sitting next to me is ESA flight surgeon Ben Douglas and Londoner Peter Brogden.

Here I am at the pre-launch breakfast. Sitting next to me is ESA flight surgeon Ben Douglas and Londoner Peter Brogden.

Finally…The Soyuz Launch

Finally it was time for the launch! The night had been full of build up, but at last we were on our way. Despite my excitement, I fell asleep on the bus ride to the launch. When we finally got there, I was amazed at how close we were to the Soyuz: less than 1 mile away (in America the closest you can get to a launch is 3 miles)! There was a small viewing platform, but enough room for the 150 or so people who were there to see the launch. This was totally different than my shuttle launch experience, where a half million people attended and we had to show up 6 hours ahead of launch time and where getting a spot 6 miles away was a challenge. A couple minutes before the launch, we saw the International Space Station pass overhead. It had been planned so that the Soyuz would literally be racing the station across the sky after the Soyuz launch to catch up.

The sky was a beautiful clear, dark black, with thousands more stars visible than in the city. There was no countdown clock and no announcement to tell us what was happening. A few minutes before the launch the support arms around the Soyuz dropped. It was odd, because it wasn’t like at a shuttle launch in America, where you were constantly up to date, with minute by minute announcements of the process. At this Soyuz launch, one moment the arms dropped, and the next thing the rockets were hissing. The rocket remained on the pad for what seemed like a minute, but I know was only actually seconds, as the engines gained velocity. Finally it lifted off and great plumes of smoke billowed out in all directions, lit up by the engines tail of fire. As the rocket left the tower, there was a moment where the entire landscape was lit up by the rocket’s glare, glowing a strange pink, as if a sunrise bathed the entire desert.

Soyuz Launch

Photo Credit: NASA

The roaring of the rockets filled my ears, and a strange bubble seemed to surround me. Nobody else mattered. Nothing else registered. It was just me, and the rocket. A strange thrumming filled my body, not quite the ground shaking that I was expecting. It was more like a really loud bass- a sound that emanated throughout your entire body. I could feel it in my throat, my heart, and in my very bones. As I watched the rocket rise and felt it throughout my body, I placed my hand over my heart. It was an unconscious motion, but upon later thought it seemed almost sacred. It was the same motion made in my past when reciting the Girl Scout oath as a child, made when listening to the national anthem at sporting competitions, made when swearing a promise to a good friend.

The fire in this picture shows how intense the launch experience was. The red glow around the rocket filled the sky. It seemed like the rocket was moving in slow motion.  Photo Credit: Mark Rigby

The fire in this picture shows how intense the launch experience was. The red glow around the rocket filled the sky. It seemed like the rocket was moving in slow motion yet is was over very quickly.
Photo Credit: Mark Rigby

The only thoughts going through my head were of Luca and the other astronauts; of how amazing it was that this was finally happening for them, and what it must have felt like to have been them at that moment. I could imagine myself in their spot, and knew at this point, beyond any doubt or contradiction, that I would do this someday. I hadn’t thought it was possible for my drive to get any stronger – this was what I wanted, right? Everything that I had done so far, and even more so, all the work that I knew I would have to do in the future to reach this point, seemed more worthwhile than ever before.

I remember after the rocket disappeared from sight, staring at the spot I had last seen it, right next to a star. I stared for minutes, just smiling. Eventually I made my way back to the bus, milling between the crowds. I felt dazed, both by the immensity of what I had just experienced, and by the newfound ambition I felt. I remember getting on the bus, and refusing to watch the video I had taken of the launch, not wanting to taint my memory of it. Instead, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, replaying it over and over in my mind. A week later, when I finally watched the video, I was surprised at the quality. I had forgotten I was even holding a camera, and yet it remained clear and centered, following the rocket nearly the whole way.

NASA photo credit

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